Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism. She is the author of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures and the literary memoir Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!
Underground AirlinesBen H. Winters
RaveNPRAn extraordinary new novel of alternate history...Underground Airlines jolts readers to a heightened awareness, making us see just how much of the nightmare of what could have been is part of the all-too-familiar reality of what is ... Like all great works of suspense - and this is one suspenseful tale filled with double crosses and dangerous expeditions down drainage tunnels and into plantations - Underground Airlines is hyperattentive to details. The world Winters conjures up is chillingly credible.
PanNPRMassive, yet precisely detailed construction is Franzen's forte; like Anabel, he's an obsessive. The trouble with Purity, though, is that this time around, Franzen isn't able to persuade his readers to share his obsessions.
RaveNPREven though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many fine female writers do ‘backwards and in heels,’ in the case of the blandly titled Freedom, it's well deserved … It's the novel — by a man — along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman, Lionel Shriver, and the incandescent Sue Miller, that I'd elect to put in a time capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future readers. And, I sincerely hope that last phrase is not an oxymoron … There's not one throwaway scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
MixedNPRLike a stalk of late-summer corn that's blighted at its very tip, NW's narrative is four-fifths ripe, golden deliciousness, one-fifth barren cob. As she did in her terrific debut White Teeth, Smith gives us an ambitious city novel in NW … As anyone who's read Smith's fiction knows, her genius dwells in her language. She excels at Gertrude Stein-inspired lines that whip together sound and nonsense and fleeting zigzags of insight … It's Natalie's bizarre remedy for her own alienation, however, that causes this novel to crumble in its final 70 pages or so, endangering its credibility and the wealth of its accumulated, smart observations about contemporary London.
The LowlandJhumpa Lahiri
PositiveNPRThere's a quality of stillness to The Lowland that, especially in its opening sections, almost verges on the stagnant — or would, were it not for Lahiri's always surprising language and plotting … The Lowland is buoyantly ambitious in both its story and its form … The Lowland is a novel about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living. Toward the end of The Lowland, a metaphorical monsoon finally hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening.
This is How You Lose HerJunot Díaz
PositiveNPROscar, I'm happy to say, is nowhere in this terrific collection, which instead focuses almost exclusively on Yunior, Oscar's wired friend who narrated The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The nine fully charged-up and chronologically mixed-up stories here mostly explore Yunior's staggeringly scummy treatment of his girlfriends — his "hood hotties" — but they also riff on other kinds of love: maternal and brotherly; the yearning immigrants feel for their home country; the distinct emotional purgatories of the cheater and the cheated upon ...because as any Junot Diaz reader knows, his characters can't rattle on for long without resorting to some expletive. Happily, Yunior's voice is as versatile as his other main instrument...
RaveNPR...a novel about post-Sept. 11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the great American novel about dreaming, overreaching and loss, but many people forget that it's also a great novel about New York City, which stands in for the idea of America in the novel ... We live in a permanent state of aftermath. Which is where Joseph O'Neill's marvelous novel Netherland begins ... O'Neill is a wide-ranging stylist capable of whipping out unexpected but precisely right words like 'peregrinating.' He's also adroit at muted comedy...The Great Gatsby itself has become something of a 'green light' for novelists — a literary ideal to be reached for but never quite grasped. O'Neill in Netherland runs faster, stretches out his arms farther and approaches the glow of greatness.
The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver
PanNPRA serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. ‘Lacuna’ refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character … Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history, the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, ‘Greatness is very boring.’ The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating.
One of the BoysDaniel Magariel
RaveNPRA slim, deeply affecting and brutal story ... There's nothing fake or forced in Magariel's writing; he even pulls off the trick of relying on a 12-year-old narrator without pandering to sentimentality or wise-child syndrome. Those are some of the pitfalls Magariel avoids; what he achieves is a novel that makes readers feel what it would be like to live on high alert all the time; to be at the mercy of a father's addictions, crackpot whims and surges of violence. He also makes us feel what it would be like to still love such a father.
The Cuckoo's CallingRobert Galbraith
MixedNPRIn April, a debut mystery called The Cuckoo's Calling was published ... The story takes place in a circumscribed setting, it's full of oddball suspects, and the killer is affably lurking in plain sight throughout much of the action. Rowling's private eye hero is named Cormoran Strike: He's an ex-military policeman who lost a leg in Afghanistan ... Rowling tries to bring a more contemporary edge to this novel by featuring a beautiful biracial victim and delving into the demimonde of high fashion and hip-hop royalty, but the world here still feels curiously dated ... The most intriguing unsolved mystery in The Cuckoo's Calling is why, in this post-Lisbeth Salander age, Rowling would choose to outfit her female lead with such meek and anachronistic feminine behavior.
We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
PositiveNPRFowler's novel is superb, but I've already warned a couple of sensitive animal lovers I know away from it. You should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves only if you're willing to be upset and probably permanently haunted … Fern disappears when Rosemary is 5, and we don't learn what happened to her until the end of the novel. What Rosemary does chronicle, however, is how her family was shattered by Fern's leave-taking. Lowell grows up to be a militant animal-rights activist wanted by the FBI; her mother descends into depression; her father drinks. Rosemary thinks she endured the worst fate of all … Fowler's smart and exquisitely sad novel provokes us to think about a lot of aspects of our relationship to animals that most of us would rather ignore.
Sweet ToothIan McEwan
PanNPRMcEwan deploys his great gifts of storytelling to draw readers into an intricate plot about Serena's career during the 1970s, working as a low-level operative for MI5, the British internal intelligence service. Then, by novel's end, McEwan ridicules us readers for ever believing in Serena and the fictional world he's blown breath into … There's a degree of nastiness here — particularly in that genderized disdain for female readers as well as in McEwan's cool dismissal of the products of his own imagination. Postmodernist writing can have humor and heart, but, in Sweet Tooth, McEwan's postmodernist narrative ‘tricks’ simply serve as weapons of mass destruction. The novel is exposed as little more than a mental game, and Serena, whom we've grown attached to, is brutally silenced.
A God in RuinsKate Atkinson
RaveThe Washington PostIn A God in Ruins, she’s written not only a companion to her earlier book, but a novel that takes its place in the line of powerful works about young men and war … A God in Ruins contains many...harrowing scenes, rendered in economical detail and occasional black humor. Atkinson’s skills as a suspense writer serve her well here: It’s not till the final pages of the novel that we learn who makes it through the war and who doesn’t. As powerfully as it conveys life-and-death struggles in the air, A God in Ruins also compels readers to recognize the courage of those in the war’s aftermath, who were left to quietly pick up the pieces.
The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an EyeDavid Lagercrantz
MixedThe Washington PostLarsson had grand ambitions for his Millennium series, projecting a total of 10 novels. In Lagercrantz's hands, the series is realizing grand ambitions of another sort. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for An Eye intensifies the mythic elements of Larsson's vision. All the talk of stolen babies and a 'search for origins' in this novel - along with the malevolent influence of Salander's evil twin, Camilla - moves the series further into the realms of Star Wars and Harry Potter. A little of this legendary stuff goes a long way in Salander's hard world ... The enduring draw at the center of the Millennium series is that image of a strange and solitary young woman trying to even the score with all manner of bullies by dint of her brains and, when called for, some martial arts moves. A bit far-fetched, certainly, but it's rooted in the just barely possible. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is entertaining, but 'the girl' at the center of this wild tale is beginning to look like somebody we readers only used to know.
Who Is Rich?Matthew Klam
RaveNPR...[a] superb debut novel ... Like all great humorists, Klam is a sharp observer and he skewers his targets here with specificity and brio. Who Is Rich? is also cynically smart about the class politics crackling in the air at these kinds of gatherings ... There's a scene midway through this novel where Rich — guilty about an affair and itching to break free of his paycheck-to-paycheck existence — impulsively blows his entire honorarium on an expensive bracelet for his wife at home. I swear to you the economic terror Klam conjures up in that scene is every bit as vivid as the physical terror of the opening scene of that quintessential New England beach movie, Jaws.
The Last LaughLynn Freed
RaveNPR'Geezer Lit' has become a booming publishing niche as we readers wrinkle, but The Last Laugh is so much more than a print version of The Golden Girls. Freed's one-liners on subjects like sleep apnea machines are hilarious; so are the excerpts from Ruth's columns, which she writes for a senior publication called So Long Magazine. But Freed also gives more somber subjects their due, such as loneliness and the fear of looming dependence. The Last Laugh is a Campari spritzer of a novel: bubbly and colorful, but with a underlying note of bitterness to add satisfying complexity.
The Lying GameRuth Ware
MixedThe Washington PostThis story stays scrupulously within the lines: to the degree it satisfies, it does so because — like a Lifetime movie — its premise, setting and characters are so comfortably broken-in. There’s even a haunted house, a dark and stormy night, a baby in peril and climactic trials by flood and fire ... Ware’s style here is as routine as her plot. For instance, when faced with an awful revelation, Isa feels 'a shiver of cold run from my neck, all the way down my back, prickling at my skin.' In other scenes, like many a thriller heroine before her, words scream inside Isa’s head ... The Lying Game rallies in its second half, making a few unforeseen detours off its well-worn narrative road before inevitably returning to that perilous half-submerged footbridge to wrap things up. As long as readers are ready to surrender to the pleasures of the predictable, Ware’s latest thriller is enjoyable enough.
The Last HackChristopher Brookmyre
RaveThe Washington Post...if, like me, you are a technophobe who also loves good suspense fiction, you should stick with this story...the techie jargon here is more decorative than essential. It’s an embellishment that lends credibility to one of the most ingenious thrillers I’ve read in a long time ... Brookmyre is a pro at slowly injecting ever more anxiety into scenes where the suspense sweat-o-meter is already hovering in the red zone ... The one thing critical to a good suspense novel is, well, suspense. But an extraordinary suspense novel has that extra something — a haunting setting, wit or, in the case of The Last Hack, the presence of an idiosyncratic, morally complex heroine. The immortal Lisbeth Salander, that other 'girl on the Internet,' is brilliant, but deliberately difficult to cozy up to; Sam Morpeth is much more human and vulnerable. By the end of this novel, she’s not only hacked her way into high security sites like Synergis but into but a reader’s affections, too.
The Long DropDenise Mina
PositiveThe Washington PostIt’s hard to top that macabre pub-crawl around Glasgow for drama, but Mina has plenty of other provocative historical material here to flesh out — including the transcripts of Manuel’s murder trial that took place the following year ... the narrator of The Long Drop sees far beyond the daily grime and grisly events of the late 1950s and, yet, mostly keeps mum, leaving readers to stumble with detectives through the fug of half-truths and lies that enshroud the story of Peter Manuel and his patsy or prey or possible partner in crime, William Watt. The Long Drop takes readers on a suspenseful tour into the past, through psyches and situations far grimmer than even those sooty Glasgow streets.
Do Not Become AlarmedMaile Meloy
RaveNPR...a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss ... Meloy is such a deft writer that she keeps the adventure plot whizzing along even as she deepens our sense of the characters and the unfamiliar culture they have to navigate. You may (mistakenly) think that you don't want to enter the nightmare world of this novel, but Meloy makes you realize what a luxury it is to have that choice.
Golden HillFrancis Spufford
RaveNPRGolden Hill is so gorgeously crafted, so intelligent and entertaining, it makes a case for the enduring vitality of the more straightforward historical novel ... Spufford's sprawling recreation here is pitch perfect, down to single sentences that can stretch exuberantly to a page, as well as a comic narrator who directly apologizes to readers when events get too bawdy or bloody.
Modern GodsNick Laird
MixedNPRWhen Modern Gods stays within the bounds of this closely observed family story — about Alison's shot at happiness thwarted by the power of the past; about Liz's reckoning with the price she's paid for leaving Ballyglass — it's an engrossing spin on Laird's signature theme of reinvention. But Modern Gods doesn't stay within those bounds. It gets antsy or maybe even anxious about sticking to the traditionally female terrain of domestic drama, and so in its second half the novel goes seriously haywire. Think Heart of Darkness without its colonialist weight or A Handful of Dust without the laughs ... The novel starts out with a lot of promise, but like the beliefs and conventions it punctures, Modern Gods itself ends up being a lot of wild blather.
The ChildFiona Barton
PanThe Washington PostThe best moments in The Child occur when readers tag along with Kate as she works on identifying the long dead infant by talking her way into pubs and flats and combing through old archives. All the while, she’s also teaching her wide-eyed hipster intern the classic techniques of golden age investigative journalism. Enjoyable as those scenes are, however, the rest of The Child should have been sent to the publishing equivalent of Kate’s rewrite desk. The Child is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil ... Figuring out how all these women are connected — to each other and to the unidentified infant — is the hypothetical draw of this kind of fragmented, multi-perspective type of storytelling. I say 'hypothetical draw,' because The Child is more tedious than tense.
No One Can Pronounce My NameRakesh Satyal
RaveNPRRakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes, but its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of it various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming-out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar. Yet, there's nothing preachy or predictable about Satyal's novel ... Their shared situation may sound glum, but because No One Can Pronounce My Name is essentially — and delightfully — a comic novel, the intertwined plots here are buoyant rather than blue ... No One Can Pronounce My Name explores the politics of sexual identity, as well as the immigrant and first-generation American experience, but, unfashionable as it may sound, the novel's greater achievement lies in the compassionate, comic way it explores the universal human experience of loneliness.
Into the WaterPaula Hawkins
PanThe Washington Post...something’s amiss in this second novel: It’s stagnant rather than suspenseful. The Girl On The Train may have rumbled back and forth on the same train tracks twice a day, but at least it moved; as a thriller, Into The Water is stuck in the mud ... Into The Water is a dull disappointment of a thriller; one good flush would put everybody — characters and readers alike — out of their misery.
HereticsLeonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
RaveNPRFor over 500 tightly packed pages here, Padura manages to sustain his signature tone of wry, elegant cool as he juggles the demands of a story that oscillates between Cuba in the 1930s and the present ... Heretics spans and defies literary categories. All of which would only be of ho-hum technical interest if Heretics weren't also an arresting novel about fanaticism, anti-Semitism and the long fall-out of a decades-old moment of political cowardice ... Cloaked within familiar narrative conventions, Padura's ingenious novel is something of a heretic itself: by turns playful, dark, and moving, it traces the great psychic costs — and rewards — that come from nestling so deeply into dogma that nothing is permitted to trigger doubt.
Waking LionsAyelet Gundar-Goshen
PositiveNPRAs a novel, Waking Lions itself is the product of a collision of cultures and genres. Translated from the Hebrew, it's a psychological suspense tale mashed with a social novel about the refugee crisis. Overall, it's vividly imagined, clever, and morally ambiguous, although, occasionally, Gundar-Goshen's plot seems bit contrived. (Eitan's wife, for instance, happens to be the Israeli police detective investigating the hit-and-run accident.) Those lapses, however, mean little in comparison to how deftly Gundar-Goshen complicates her characters here ... a smart and disturbing exploration of the high price of walking away, whether it be from a car accident or from one's own politically unstable homeland.
Ghachar GhocharVivek Shanbhag
RaveNPRThe tense fun of reading this vivid, fretful story lies in watching the main characters grab hold of what they think will be rescue ropes, but instead turn out to be slip knots ... Ghachar Ghochar is filled with wry poetic lines like that one where Shanbhag — and his translator, Srinath Perur — have rendered emotions and even random thoughts in language that's as pungent as those spices the family is marketing. Within the tight confines of a hundred pages or so, Shanbhag presents as densely layered a social vision of Bangalore as Edith Wharton did of New York in The House of Mirth ... Ghachar Ghochar is the first of Shanbhag's fiction to be published in English, but I expect it won't be the last. He's one of those special writers who can bring a fully realized world to life in a few pages and also manages to work in smart social commentary about fears that don't require much translation.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
RaveNPRThough it's early to say, I feel pretty safe in predicting that this is going to be one of the year's most acclaimed novels. Lincoln in the Bardo is searing, inventive and bizarre ... If this overview makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem too static, too reminiscent of that sluggish classic Spoon River Anthology, be assured that the wild plot swerves of Saunders' short stories have been transplanted and multiplied in his debut novel ... Like the president who graces its pages, it's monumental.
The YidPaul Goldberg
RaveNPREvoking the clash of tone and subject found in movies like The Producers and The Great Dictator, The Yid is a screwball farce about atrocity. History here is portrayed as a mad improvisation in which the actors take charge and manically rewrite the script even as they enact it. Paul Goldberg's animating intelligence gives all this madness a stunning coherence that these days we all too rarely get from either art or life.
The North WaterIan McGuire
RaveNPRIt's the poetic precision of McGuire's harsh vision of the past that makes his novel such a standout. I suggested that initial Melville comparison because of McGuire's detailed accounts of whaling, of course, but he's more in line with Gothic writers like Mary Shelly and Poe who imagined the blank wastes of the Arctic as a kind of frozen hell. Like Sumner, we readers are enticed on board The Volunteer and then find ourselves swept along on what turns out to be a voyage of the damned.
The Last Painting of Sara De VosDominic Smith
RaveNPRDominic Smith's novel about the eerie powers of art and the long reach of the past is every bit as harrowing in its own subtle way as its more physical counterpart...absolutely transporting...
MixedNPRGyasi's lyric and versatile language makes all the difference. She's only 26, yet she writes with authority about history and pulls her readers deep into her characters' lives through the force of her empathetic imagination ... it's a stagey premise, but Gyasi coaxes us into accepting this baroque situation through the conviction and, occasionally, even the playful novelty of her descriptions ... Homegoing would have been a stronger novel if it had ended sooner, perhaps on a moment like this one, where the urban crowd absorbs Robert in his whiteness, but silently rebuffs Willie. As the novel moves forward into our own time the pressure to wrap up the two storylines intensifies, and contrivance comes to the fore. But so many moments earlier on in this strong debut novel linger.
What is Not Yours is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
PositiveNPRSometimes, I have to say, the sinuous style of Oyeyemi's storytelling totally bewildered me; but when the tales are alive enough — and many of them are — I was willing to surrender my expectations of closure, of that 'click' of the door, that more traditional short stories usually end on. What is always a sure thing with Oyeyemi is her mastery of imagery and language — both of which are capable of being shocks to the system.
In the CountryMia Alvar
RaveNPR...what will make readers want to remain in the tired and sad company of Alvar's workers and wanderers is her own gorgeous writing style. Each one of the nine stories in this collection riffs on the theme of exile; yet, every main character's situation is distinct, morally messy in a different way, and unpredictable. Alvar is the kind of writer whose imagination seems inexhaustible, and who stirs up an answering desire in her readers for more and more stories.
A Manual for Cleaning WomenLucia Berlin
RaveNPRHaving all these Berlin stories assembled together really gives a sense of their breadth: Berlin (and her fictional narrators) have seen it all — from the rich girls' schools in Chile, to the trailer parks and laundromats where folks live who routinely bum bus fare and beer money ... If you want consolation or uplift from your short stories, look elsewhere. Berlin had been around the block a few too many times to sugarcoat things. But her hard-earned, one-of-a-kind voice and vision make these stories well worth the pain.
The Dream Life of AstronautsPatrick Ryan
RaveNPR...a very funny and touching collection ... The title story is the best new short story I've read in light years ... Ryan's stories usually start off with mundane situations and then boldly go into the depths of emotional deep space ... a wry and smart collection — a beam of intelligent life from an author who clearly likes to probe the outer edges of the familiar.
The WonderEmma Donoghue
RaveThe Washington Post...[an] exquisite new novel ... These rooms of Donoghue’s may be tiny and sealed off, yet they teem with life-and-death drama and great moral questions ... Donoghue manages to engage these larger mysteries of faith, doubt and evil without sacrificing the lyricism of her language or the suspense of her story line. Anna may or may not be a genuine 'living marvel,' but The Wonder certainly is.
Lady Cop Makes TroubleAmy Stewart
PositiveThe Washington PostStewart offsets the series’ sentimentality with her dogged attention to the specific — and often sordid — details of Constance’s work life ... Stewart starkly dramatizes what the loss of Constance’s paycheck would do. As the steady wage earner among her sisters, Constance keeps food on the table ... Throughout the novel, Constance confronts nightmare images of female dependency ... takes readers on a lively chase through a lost world. It’s a colorful and inventive adventure tale that also contains a serious message at its core about the importance of meaningful work to women’s identities and, in some cases, survival.
Perfect Little WorldKevin Wilson
RaveNPRFortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception ... Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled ... Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I'd finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged. The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson's 'perfect little world' of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.
A Great ReckoningLouise Penny
RaveThe Washington PostThere’s an element of Nancy Drew here, but Penny, as ever, has something more ambitious in store ... The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary. Although individual novels have featured plots about mass murderers and serial killers, they’re always infused with wit and compassion; they’re as much spiritual investigations into the nature of evil and divine mercy as they are 'entertainments' ... the main narrative branches into more complicated patterns until all questions are resolved in a spectacular climax that cross cuts between story lines ... In addition to all her other many gifts, Penny is a beautiful writer. A Great Reckoning is one of her best, but I think that pretty much every time I finish a Gamache mystery...or metaphysical exploration, or whatever the heck these miraculous books are.
RaveNPR...these stories, dozens of them chopped and scrambled, are bawdy and moving, violent and very funny ... Granted, some subplots seem self-indulgently baroque...But Chabon's narrative energies never flag ... a multitude of subplots command attention because they're so highly textured and because Chabon's language is so voluminous and vivid ... this is why you read Michael Chabon - for the self-deprecation and insight and brio all packed tight into sentences, fantastic stories and wild novels that you may think are a world away from where you live but always turn out to hit home.
The MothersBrit Bennett
MixedNPRTruth to tell, as a work of the imagination, The Mothers isn't all it's hyped up to be. The plot and premise here feel canned. Indeed, much of the novel reads like a mash-up of Lifetime movie melodrama with Hallmark Channel social politics. To a certain extent though, The Mothers is redeemed by the presence of those same sharp perceptions that made Bennett's essay such a must read sensation ... But a work of fiction demands more than intermittently perceptive moments to come to life. Unfortunately, The Mothers lacks the narrative and linguistic energy to sustain a reader's belief in the world that Bennett has contrived.
A Really Good DayAyelet Waldman
PositiveNPR...[a] nervy, funny and thought-provoking new book ... A Really Good Day tells a really good story, one that will make readers think about how drugs get classified and how chemistry alters what we think of as essential personality traits. It's a story that only a woman who's lived most of her life being 'a handful' would be gutsy enough to tell.
Sour HeartJenny Zhang
RaveNPR...most of Zhang's situations — and language — are far more violent and sexually explicit than the classic immigrant tale. These girls aren't sheltered. How could they be, when they're sleeping on mattresses on a floor shared by their parents and three other families? They're tough and knowing — and they sound like it — although you can also hear vestiges of a childish vulnerability in their voices ... Most of Zhang's others stories in Sour Heart are simultaneously tough to read and, yet, worth it. There's something very compelling about young girls in fiction, and in life, who speak up — and if their voices are rude, funny, even offensive sometimes, all the better. Given this fierce debut, I'll be giving the other voices Dunham finds a careful listen.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
MixedNPRAs engrossed as I was in the elaborate, clashing tales of [Lotto and Mathilde's] marriage, I didn't find myself caring at all about them or believing in them, for that matter. Granted, not every novel needs to be character-driven to be worth reading, and there are plenty of other reasons to read and admire Fates And Furies. It's just that without the presence of compelling characters at its core, Groff's novel ends up being an austere, architectural achievement. There are certainly worse things for a novel to be, but there are also better.
The Story of the Lost ChildElena Ferrante
RaveNPR'The Neapolitan Novels,' taken together as one long epic that stretches from childhood to old age, are so smart about the darker currents of female friendships, the discrepancies between sexual desire and sexual politics, the high cost of a class migration like Elena's, and the ultimate 'velocity with which life [is] consumed.'
The Portable VeblenElizabeth McKenzie
RaveNPRWhatever literary category it falls into, The Portable Veblen winds up being totally endearing because it is so completely and originally itself ... McKenzie doesn't write cute. Instead, this is a quirky novel that respects itself and so doesn't try too hard to win a reader over. McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic.
The PastTessa Hadley
PositiveNPRThe final moment of this novel in particular is a killer. From the coziest and most familiar of fictional materials, Hadley has created a remarkable story, as disturbing as it is diverting.
Twain & Stanley Enter ParadiseOscar Hijuelos
PanNPR...it's chockablock with information that educates but doesn't entertain. Hijuelos hadn't yet found a way to dramatically convey whatever it was that obsessed him about Twain and Stanley's friendship and shape it into a story distinct from the historical record. In the end, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is a novel that makes you appreciate — unfortunately, by its absence — the magic that animates Hijuelos' best work.
The CrossingMichael Connelly
PositiveThe Washington PostBosch may be out to pasture as far as the Los Angeles Police Department is concerned, but Connelly is still very much in his prime as a suspense writer. The Crossing is a pensive thriller that’s ingeniously constructed and ambitious in scope.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
RaveNPRInnocents And Others is one of those uncanny novels whose characters and ideas linger long after the story is over. In the end, Spiotta's portrayal of artistic idealism and ambition is unexpectedly moving. As Meadow would say, what a mystery the way things act on us.
The Little Red ChairsEdna O'Brien
RaveNPRThe Little Red Chairs is both a call to pleasure and duty. O'Brien's undiminished gifts as a storyteller draw us in and then awaken us to the limits of our own blinkered vision, the fragility of our own safe havens.
A Doubter’s AlmanacEthan Canin
RaveNPRThroughout the over 500 pages of this elegant and devastating novel, Canin writes with authority about the likes of number theory, submanifolds and differential equations. But what he writes about with even more authority is the pressure to work, to produce, to achieve and the constant thrumming anxiety felt by his central character in particular that whatever special gifts one may have been graced with at birth could just as mysteriously disappear.
The MareMary Gaitskill
RaveNPRGaitskill's charged writing makes all things possible here — not only surmounting the sentimental premise of this situation, but, also, delving deep into characters' lives...The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together.
The WitchesStacy Schiff
PositiveNPRIn The Witches, Schiff may not lead us out of the dark, but she makes it an inviting place to linger a while and listen to fresh details of a familiar story all over again.
M TrainPatti Smith
PositiveNPRUnlike Just Kids, whose linear plot was all about the thrill of 'becoming,' M Train is about enduring erosion. Its narrative, fittingly, is more allusive and incantatory, more like Smith's distinctive song lyrics.
MixedThe Washington PostJon McGregor has revolutionized that most hallowed of mystery plots: the one where some foul deed takes place in a tranquil English village that, by the close of the case, doesn’t feel so tranquil anymore. Whether you find McGregor’s innovations brilliant or boring will depend on your tolerance for delayed gratification ... as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else. Staying inside his finely wrought construction for long stretches of time made me feel wistful for Agatha Christie. I wanted clues to track, criminals to nab and, most of all, a timely solution that would lay evil to rest ... The inventive — and enervating — quality of McGregor’s novel derives not only from its refusal to bend to conventional thriller expectations, but also from its form. Paragraphs frequently run on for pages — monoliths of prose in which the minutiae of life in the village is recounted ... Reservoir 13 generates suspense, not out of chase scenes or sly dialogue, but out of the extended narrative experience of waiting — waiting for something, anything, to break in Rebecca’s case. Maybe this is not so much a thriller, but a 'post-thriller'— a novel that meditates on tragedy and its inevitable fading away in memory. No matter how it’s classified, Reservoir 13 requires an extraordinary amount of patience from its readers.
This Old Man: All in PiecesRoger Angell
PositiveNPRHe may be old — ancient even — but his voice on the page is still as nimble and strong as that of the kid who talked his way into LaGuardia's office. As Angell tells it straight, it's not much of a pleasure to be very old, but it is a great pleasure to spend time in the company of This Old Man.
The Lonely CityOlivia Laing
RaveNPRLaing bravely illuminates the dark contours of these difficult, sometimes even repulsive works and the extreme deprivation that produced them. In doing so, she campaigns against what she calls the gentrification of cities and of emotions. By that, she means the homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect that causes us to deny the existence of the shameful and the unwanted. The Lonely City is an odd and uncomfortable book - not consoling, but always provocative. And like so many of its weird solitary subjects, it's absolutely one-of-a-kind.
The Second Life of Nick MasonSteve Hamilton
RaveNPRThe novel is so good it legitimately stands shoulder to padded, paranoid shoulder with the classics of the crime noir genre ... There are so many terrific elements in this novel, Nick's haunted character, a plot that never darts in the direction you expect it to and a truly ingenious climax that I could be here until Labor Day singing its praises.
Eleven HoursPamela Erens
PositiveNPRThe book is fierce and vivid in its depiction of the exhaustion of the spirit and the rending of the flesh during childbirth ... Those with delicate sensibilities should be forewarned: Erens never flinches here and in this incisive novel about birth, she bears witness to its beauty and brutality.
Heat and LightJennifer Haigh
RaveNPRFor Haigh, Bakerton is becoming something akin to Faulkner's apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It's a place she's brought to life so scrupulously that she can delve deep, both into the minds and family histories of her mostly working-class characters, as well as into the land itself and the stories it contains. Heat & Light is her most ambitious — and compelling — novel yet ... As spectacular as Haigh's panoramic social focus is in this novel — whisking us from Dark Elephant's shareholders' meeting in Houston into Bakerton's taverns, the Wal-Mart, the local meth-head hangouts and storefront churches — she's also superb at getting us into the nitty gritty of her character's worldview, as well as their speech.
Rogue LawyerJohn Grisham
RaveThe Washington PostRogue Lawyer is so cleverly plotted, it could be used as a how-to manual in fiction-writing courses. Its opening chapters are self-contained, giving the impression that this will be a collection of short legal suspense stories, rather than a novel ... It’s a mark of just how fleet-footed and inventive Rogue Lawyer is to say that the Gardy trial — which is pretty suspenseful — is the weakest story line in the novel.
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in NorwayAsne Seierstad
RaveNPRThrough extensive interviews with survivors, she's constructed a minute-by-minute account of how the attack unfolded on the island — a narrative technique that could devolve into voyeurism but doesn't. That's because Seierstad depicts the students in all their messy adolescent humanity ... As hard as it is to read about the attack, as frustrating as it is to learn how many delaying mistakes the first responders made and as monstrous as Breivik is, the kids on that island that day were beautiful in their idealism. They deserve to be witnessed, which is the ultimate reason to read One of Us.
Alice and OliverCharles Bock
PositiveNPRThe novel's source, no doubt, imbues it with authority, but its literary power derives from Bock's elastic language, stretching from his detailed inventories of extreme medical procedures to the lyric melancholy of his descriptions of mood and place...Alice & Oliver is both haunting and raw — a rare novel about cancer that, in this case, doesn't try to find meaning in serious illness, but rather gives its random malevolence its full due.
Hard Light: A Cass Neary Crime NovelElizabeth Hand
PositiveThe Washington PostHand’s tale burrows in deep. Part of its power derives from the sheer exuberant strangeness of Hand’s storytelling ... Hand is also unflinching in her depiction of her bad-girl antiheroine. Cass has much in common with Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, but Cass is older and more grimly set in her antisocial ways ... The spooky finale of Hard Light leads readers deep into a macabre murder scene — courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe — that holds clues to the beginning of the art of photography itself. It’s a bravura ending that both lays some questions to rest and exhumes even more freshly disturbing images to trouble a reader’s peace of mind.
You Will Know MeMegan Abbott
RaveNPR...a masterful thriller that also offers an eerily precise portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate ... It's Abbott's psychological smarts that make You Will Know Me such a standout ... You Will Know Me is a terrific accompaniment to this summer's Olympic frenzy. It's an all-around winner.
You Will Know MeMegan Abbott
RaveThe Washington Post...a masterful tale that’s both suspenseful and an eerily accurate portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate ... Throughout the novel, Abbott shrewdly dissects the cliques within cliques swirling within BelStars gym but never lets the suspense flag.
Under the HarrowFlynn Berry
RaveThe Washington Post...an exquisitely taut and intense debut thriller ... Under the Harrow is such a superbly crafted psychological thriller, it deserves to be celebrated for its own singular excellence.
They May Not Mean To But They DoCathleen Schine
PositiveNPRI bet some of you are thinking, who needs a novel about colostomy bags and grief? Oh, but you do need Schine's novel. At least, you do if you're a reader who relishes acute psychological perceptions and lots of laughs to leaven the existential grimness, like those other literary domestic goddesses to whom she's sometimes compared, Jane Austen and Nora Ephron ... Does anyone really ever do anyone else any good? That's the question this sparkling and sad novel mulls over and answers with a wry shrug.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
PositiveNPRDazzling and draining, dazzling and draining...Until the last hundred pages or so brought home the final verdict - just dazzling ... as absorbed as this novel is with those larger issues, it, too, like Jacob, privileges the personal over the political. Foer takes us deep into the despair that marks the crumbling of the Bloch family ... Here I Am is a profound novel about the claims of history, identity, family and the burdens of a broken world that weigh upon even the most cleverly evasive people.
RaveNPRHer other memoirs have explored the terror of coping with her then-infant son's life-threatening illness and her parents' deaths. But Hourglass is different: It's less an account of catastrophe than it is a clear-eyed inspection of the slow cracks certain to develop in a long marriage ... In addition to its many other virtues, Hourglass underscores the tightrope tension of trying to support a middle-class lifestyle on writing.
The Buried GiantKazuo Ishiguro
RaveNPRIt's that shadowy state of knowing, but mostly living as though we don't know about all these looming terrors that Kazuo Ishiguro captures in his latest novel, The Buried Giant ... In The Buried Giant, an exhausted group of medieval travelers cross a blasted landscape straight out of the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett ...Ishiguro quests after far more profound mysteries here than the location of that dragon ... This is yet another radiant and deeply moving Ishiguro riff on loss and the tragic nature of life. It'd pay at the tribute of saying that as a novel, it's unforgettable.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye (A Harry Bosch Novel)Michael Connelly
RaveThe Washington PostThis latest Bosch outing is its own accomplishment: brooding and intricate, suspenseful and sad. In short, it’s another terrific Michael Connelly mystery ... Because Connelly is such a hardboiled master, he casually sidesteps the usual narrative convention and does not intertwine these two plots. Instead, readers experience the stressful chaos of Harry’s overloaded and divided life.
PositiveNPRLoner begins as a sharply observed novel of manners, academic posturing and social distinctions on campus today. But it soon mutates into a classic tale of obsession. The overall effect is a bit jumbled. As a reader, I felt as though I'd been shoved off a college orientation tour straight into an advanced abnormal psych seminar. But if you don't mind the switch in style, Loner ultimately becomes a powerful and even a somewhat touching suspense story.
Chester B. Himes: A BiographyLawrence P. Jackson
RaveNPRAs interesting as Jackson's account of Himes' later life is — including his eventual self exile in Paris, a deep friendship with Malcolm X and the turn to writing the detective novels that would bring him fame and financial success — it's the long section of this biography about Himes' prison years that's most absorbing ... Himes, like the literature he created, was difficult and sometimes cruel; but Jackson insists he's worth the trouble. At the end of this biography, Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer, describing 'his spirited realism from the bottom that defied fear and always cut hard enough to draw blood.' That sentence, and many more like it, make me intrigued enough to want to read Himes' work beyond the detective novels I already know.
In the DarkroomSusan Faludi
PositiveNPRIn the course of investigating the enigma that always has been her father, Faludi considers the various strains of gender, ethnicity, religion and family that, perhaps, go into making someone who they are. At times, this wide-load technique slows down the narrative force of Faludi's book: a fat section, for instance, on the identity theories of Freud and Erik Erikson reads like an excerpt from a psych textbook. Elsewhere, however, Faludi's ambition is justified, such as when she considers the darker dimensions of the identity politics that fueled the Holocaust, as well as rising right-wing nationalist movements in Hungary and other Eastern European countries today...A compelling, exhausting, messy and provocative book, In the Darkroom seems like especially pertinent reading in these, our own dark times, when questions of identity keep coming to the fore, as matters of life and death.
Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer WomanMary Mann Hamilton
PositiveNPR...it's the backstory that will first grab a reader, but it's Hamilton's gift for storytelling in her blunt voice that makes this memoir such a standout ... Hamilton's sprawling recollections of pioneer life add to the historical value of Trials of the Earth, even if some sections are ugly and tough to read.
The Burning GirlClaire Messud
RaveNPRThe Burning Girl reads like an updated Gothic tale — in part, because it has so many of the traditional trappings of the genre (a decaying mansion, an evil guardian, ghosts) and, in part, because it's a novel about the friendship between two adolescent girls — and what life journey could be more Gothic than the passage through adolescence? ... Because Messud is such a precise and restrained writer, the girls' haunted summer walking tour remains credible, as well as evocative ... this is a novel that's made distinct by its mood more than its story. The climax here melds together the mundane griefs and cruelties of adolescence with the eerie atmosphere of those dark woods and that asylum. Like most of Messud's other novels, The Burning Girl deeply excavates the subject of female loneliness. Growing up female, as Julia tells us, may indeed have something to do with learning to be afraid, but in writing on the difficult topics of abandonment, betrayal and isolation, Messud herself is fearless.
Little DeathsEmma Flint
PositiveThe Washington PostEven though Flint is British, she nails with authority the voices, commonplace wisdom and dusty claustrophobia of the borough. Just as important, Flint captures the mundane yet mythic horror of the case that has memorialized it in the annals of New York City crime ... Flint is scrupulous about centering this moody thriller in the facts, yet giving them a deeper psychological spin. In a way that feels measured rather than salacious, Flint also manages to keep aloft the crucial question of 'Who murdered the children?' until the very last pages. As a novel inspired by tragic real-life events, Little Deaths is atmospheric and plausible.
Upstream: Selected EssaysMary Oliver
RaveNPRI need a moment, more than a moment, in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver and I think you might need one too ... There's hardly a page in my copy of Upstream that isn't folded down or underlined and scribbled on, so charged is Oliver's language. What her language is not is sentimental or confessional ... Her essay here on Poe turns out to be the most compassionate piece on him I've ever read.
Eleanor Roosevelt Volume 3: The War Years and AfterBlanche Wiesen Cook
PositiveNPROne of the most extraordinary aspects of the third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the way it ends. I don't think I've ever read another biography where the death of the subject is noted in an aside of less than 10 words, on the second to last page of the book ... packed with many revealing small incidents, as well as detailed accounts of her tireless work on behalf of progressive causes ... I've read all three volumes of Cook's biography and, taken together, they present an exhausting and exhilarating story, as well as undeniably melancholy one.
The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
RaveNPRI feel like I've been waiting for a novel like this to appear not only since I read The Secret History, but also since I first read David Copperfield … As ingenious as Tartt's plot is, this novel would be but a massive scaffolding feat, were it not for her uncanny way with words … [Theo’s] loneliness is the realistic emotional constant in this crowded, exuberantly plotted triumph of a novel. And if that ain't ‘Dickensian,’ I don't know what is.
Leaving the Atocha StationBen Lerner
PositiveNPRLerner's offbeat little novel manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience … Almost everything that happens here happens inside the main character's head, which runs day and night like one of those loop-the-loop computer screen savers, constantly generating digressions, fibs, self-criticisms and doubts … Adam's thoughts don't so much resolve themselves into conclusions; they simply dissolve into other thoughts: thoughts about the authenticity of our connection to art and to other people; thoughts about the wobbly nature of reality … The fact that I liked this novel as much as I did is entirely due to the fluidity of Lerner's words and to the wit of his musings.
What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their StoriesLaura Shapiro
RaveNPRIn the resulting portraits, Shapiro, like a consummate maître d', sets down plate after plate of the food these women cooked, ate or thought about and an amazing thing happens: Slowly the more familiar accounts of each of their lives recede and other, messier narratives emerge ... Several times throughout What She Ate, Shapiro repeats what surely is one of her life's mantras: 'Food talks — but somebody has to hear it.' How lucky for us readers that Shapiro has been listening so perceptively for decades to the language of food.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PositiveNPRThe two separate plotlines about these two questers — Nicole and Epstein —ultimately intersect, but that's the only predictable aspect of this scramble of a novel. There are digressions here into Franz Kafka, René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, fairy tales and film. Sections of the novel are walled off from each another, as disconnected as that row-after-row of rooms in the Tel Aviv Hilton. Readers should just go along for the choppy ride, because the pleasure of Krauss' writing isn't located in the story. Instead, it's the wayward precision of her language that draws us into the desert, 'the forest dark' and other contemplative places where illumination occurs.
The Ninth Hour
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. McDermott’s range may be confined, but she sees a world within those dusty parish halls, tenements, bars and funeral homes whose interest is inexhaustible. With the precision of a master—never over-reaching for significance or relaxing into sentimentality—Ms. McDermott lays bare the reasons why those 'small lives' matter ... A great McDermott novel—and The Ninth Hour is a great one—makes you realize the wisdom of her decision to stay put in the old neighborhood ... Female self-sacrifice—its allure and moral complications—is Ms. McDermott’s overarching subject here. As Mary Gordon did almost 40 years ago in her now classic debut, Final Payments, Ms. McDermott brilliantly dramatizes the pull, especially on loving Catholic daughters, of martyrdom ... Ms. McDermott has once again managed a marvelous literary feat: She’s written another one of those 'parochial' novels of hers whose reach is universal.
The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir
PositiveNPR...a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and Bizarro World witty, they reaffirm the resiliency of the artistic imagination ... The overarching aim of all this outlandishness is to entertain, as well as to tuck some social criticism into the formulaic folds of these tales of spooks, spies, private eyes, clones, bots and alien invaders ... In recent years, writers of color have taken up sci-fi and fantasy in particular as richly poetic vehicles to explore racism and imagine alternative worlds. The pulp stories in The Obama Inheritance — sci-fi, fantasy and noir — are fun to read, and be forewarned: Many of them also pack a punch.
Afterglow (a dog memoir)Eileen Myles
PositiveNPREver since Marley & Me was published in 2005, the litter of literary tributes to beloved bow-wows has become so vast and formulaic that a universal spaying of the genre is called for. But Afterglow is a mutt elegy in a million ... Through all this weirdness, Myles gets at something no other dog book I've read has gotten at quite this distinctly: The sense of wordless connection and spiritual expansion you feel when you love and are loved by a creature who's not human ... Myles takes chances with form: Sometimes they flop into incomprehensibility; but, overall, Afterglow works. It's raw and affecting, and in its wild snuffling way, utterly original.
RaveNPRThis is a big, traditional historical novel — in the manner of a Ken Follett or Herman Wouk ... Like every good historical novel I've ever read, the storyline of this one is as hokey as hell and completely transporting. Manhattan Beach is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven, and it boldly helps itself to a wide library of earlier New York stories ... Manhattan Beach isn't flawless. Especially at the beginning, Egan strains to convince readers of the authenticity of her story and intrusively references too many brand names and period details: Ivory Flakes for washing, automats, the 40-cent boxed chicken lunches that Anna buys at the Navy Yard. But to focus on scattered imperfections would be like focusing on the litter of New York City streets while ignoring the wonder of the city itself. Manhattan Beach is a big gorgeous tribute to New York City and its seaport. In drawing from the classic catalog of New York stories, Manhattan Beach also takes its place among them.