Moira MacDonald is the movie critic at The Seattle Times. She has a master's degree in literature from the University of Washington. Moira can be found on Twitter @moiraverse
The Bastard of IstanbulElif Shafak
PositiveThe Seattle Times...a story that extends beyond its pages into startling real-life news ...this tale of two families: one Turkish, one Armenian-American. By itself, The Bastard of Istanbul is a rich and satisfying journey...it's a vital reminder of history's hold on us, of how the past can still control the present ... It's mostly a story of women, with an all-female Istanbul family at its center. The Kazancis are four generations living in one house, including free-spirited Zehila, whom we first meet on her way to an Istanbul abortion clinic, and teenage Asya, the American-music-loving daughter who shares Zehila's rebellious streak ... To the household comes a visitor: Armanoush... She bonds with Asya, and both learn unexpected truths about their families. The past is confronted but never discarded; it flavors their lives, both sweet and bitter ... Shafak's prose is rife with telling detail... Ultimately, the story belongs to Armanoush, a book-loving young woman determined to write the missing lines in her own narrative, despite her family's concerns.
Difficult WomenRoxane Gay
PositiveThe Seattle Times...writing that seems to cut to the bone ... In their range you sense a writer trying things out: a one-paragraph story that barely fills two pages but nonetheless creates a world; forays into magic realism and fantasy; and the title story, an icily tongue-in-cheek guide to different types of 'difficult' — loose women, frigid women, crazy women, mothers, dead girls ... Though Gay can be hilariously funny in her other works, that humor isn’t much present here; this dark collection, with its literally and emotionally bruised narrators, isn’t one that you’ll want to read in one sitting. But these stories of sisters and mothers and daughters and lovers are haunting, and their quiet voices linger. Like the cover image — a heart made up of broken shards of glass — they draw you in, even as they might draw blood.
On Turpentine LaneElinor Lipman
PositiveThe Seattle TimesIf my life ever gets rewritten as a rom-com novel, I’d want Elinor Lipman to do it; she has a way of crafting books so utterly charming that you want to set up residence inside them. And yet, in a seemingly effortless balance, she’s never saccharine, but writes in a wry, warm, we’re-all-friends-here-so-let’s-have-a-drink tone ... Lipman makes said mystery — which appears to involve dead babies and a murder plot — seems more quaintly screwball than truly threatening, and everything works out delightfully by the end. Along the way, we’re treated to Lipman’s effervescent dialogue, a plot in which everybody seems to turn up at Faith’s front door at the exact wrong — or right — moment, and a group of people with whom it’s great fun to hang. Like all of Lipman’s books, On Turpentine Lane quickly becomes a friend.
Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartClaire Harman
PositiveThe Seattle Times[J]ust as Jane Eyre happily survives multiple readings (I’ve lost count on how many afternoons I’ve spent revisiting Thornfield Hall), so does the story of Charlotte Brontë — particularly when in the hands of a gifted teller. Just in time for the bicentennial anniversary of Brontë’s birth (April 21, 1816), A Fiery Heart is an engrossing, almost novelistic tale of a woman who since childhood embraced an uncanny ability 'to enter trance-like into her own imaginary world' and find everlasting stories there.
PanThe Seattle TimesThe surface differences between this work and Downton Abbey are clear: We’re in the early Victorian era, seven decades before the television series’ late-Edwardian setting; and in the city rather than the country. But Fellowes is still dealing with the same basic plot lines...despite the drama added by the serial format, Belgravia feels both drawn-out and a little tired; as if it were written in a hurry to a prescribed length ... Some of the sentences, with their requisite catalogs of period detail, read almost like satire...and many of the characters lack nuance; either impeccably good or unredeemably bad ...great fun for Downton addicts, among which I count myself. Belgravia, unfortunately, feels like a respectable but socially inferior cousin; it might get invited to dinner, but only out of obligation.
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and PrejudiceCurtis Sittenfeld
PositiveThe Seattle TimesIf you know Austen’s original well, it’s a kick to spot the parallels. But you don’t need to have read classic literature to know that Sittenfeld’s knack for characterization and snappy dialogue — and her understanding of the mysteries of love — is a treat, and that her final act, in which all the characters are united on the set of Eligible, is pure screwball joy. Is it Austen? No. Is it fun? Oh, yes. In fact, Eligible is such fun that I can imagine it might lead a few new readers to Jane Austen. Which seems, in a topsy-turvy way, quite appropriate.
How to Party With an InfantKaui Hart Hemmings
RaveThe Seattle Times...what makes How to Party With an Infant such a pleasure is its sly takedown of 21st-century parenting ... Underneath this wicked wit, though, is a warm heart.
Thirteen Ways of LookingColum McCann
PositiveThe Seattle TimesHe writes, in that quiet apartment, because he needs to find the answers. May those questions, from this most eloquent of wordsmiths, never end.
Get in TroubleKelly Link
PositiveThe Seattle TimesThe best of [these stories] are mesmerizing; creating tiny worlds (pocket universes, as the story 'Light' describes) that look deceptively like ours might, if viewed through a warped but alluringly dark prism ... A few of the stories, such as the Ray Bradbury-inspired 'Two Houses' and the very high-concept mummy’s tomb tale 'Valley of the Girls,' feel more like genre fiction, aimed at a precise audience. And Link’s fondness for the short, choppy sentence occasionally becomes off-key. But most of Get in Trouble finds an appealing balance, with Link demonstrating a gift for the telling, atmospheric detail that quietly turns a story around.
The WonderEmma Donoghue
RaveThe Seattle TimesDonoghue has a knack for enchanting phrasemaking ... She also has an uncanny way of making her tale (inspired by a number of historical cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles) both intimate and enormous ... The Wonder — the book — just takes up a tiny space. But, like all good books, it’s a world.
PanThe Seattle TimesGoodwin’s novel feels pale ... Victoria is pleasant enough but a bit plodding; the dialogue often stilted; the central character sweet but unformed ... Reading it, you sense that this might work better on television, with lavish costumes and sets filling out the blandness of the language.
Lucky BoyShanthi Sekaran
RaveThe Seattle TimesLucky Boy is both a contemporary page-turner (in the model of Chris Bohjalian’s novels) and a model of delicate, artful writing that lets us see an entire world — contemporary Berkeley, or, rather, two different versions of it — from its characters’ eyes. And its descriptions of the emotional rush of parenthood are often strikingly lovely.
The MothersBrit Bennett
PositiveThe Seattle Times...shows remarkable confidence, flair and wisdom ... Though Luke is never as vivid as the two young women, you read taking pleasure in the characters, and in Bennett’s uncanny way of bringing them alive with a tiny twist of words.
Victoria: The QueenJulia Baird
RaveThe Seattle TimesLike the best biographers, Baird writes like a novelist, and her book is crammed with irresistible detail and description. Most fascinating: Victoria’s relationship with Melbourne — 'one of the great platonic romances of modern history' — and, later, her close friendship with her ghillie John Brown.
The Portable VeblenElizabeth McKenzie
RaveThe Seattle TimesMcKenzie has an appeallingly light, playful touch here. You don’t have time to worry about whether the squirrel-obsessed Veblen is mentally ill or merely eccentric; the story whooshes along, stopping for moments of clever satire, character detail, and the occasional odd photograph.
The PastTessa Hadley
PositiveThe Seattle TimesSome of these narrators are more vivid than others; in particular, Roland seems less a man in his own right than the sum of what his sisters see. But the story flows smoothly and delicately, and its setting is irresistible.
The ClaspSloane Crosley
PositiveThe Seattle TimesCrosley’s sardonic wit makes the book a sly page-turner; like listening to a story told by a friend with a knack for making everything just a little funnier than it really is.
MixedThe Seattle TimesSeptimania is anything but a straightforward narrative, and those without a taste for magic and fantasy may give up midway through ... I won’t pretend that, after finishing Septimania, I wasn’t longing for a bite of fiction that was a bit more grounded. But the book haunted me, the way a painting does when you’re trying to figure how the artist created light.
Wolf HallHilary Mantel
PositiveThe Seattle TimesWolf Hall is both a physical place and a metaphor. It refers to the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane would have her own place of prominence in history, and yet it stands for the book's entire population as well: These courtiers resemble a pack of wolves, eyeing each other warily, killing when hungry … Mantel has a remarkable ability to make history breathe, to make characters we know from history class and the movies color-flecked and real … Mantel does not spare us the darkness of the era. Cromwell is haunted by the loss of his wife and, later, his young daughters to plague — ‘the sweat,’ which it seems no one can outrun.
Heat & LightJennifer Haigh
PositiveThe Seattle TimesYou could describe Heat and Light as a fracking novel, but that’s only a piece of it. Haigh immerses us in the community, letting its stories overlap like conversations at a town meeting...As you read, you start to sense what the air in this town smells like, and picture the faded decorations in Rich’s father’s bar and the bland, pinched-beige interior of Rich and Shelby’s home. Haigh delicately maintains the tone — and a page-turning level of engagement — while constantly shifting the narrative point of view. (At one point, she seamlessly slips into the voice of the sort of attorney who runs 'Call today!' ads on television.) She doesn’t judge her characters or their actions, but simply shines light on them, creating from a small town and a place in time a rich tapestry of dreams, of greed, of hope.
RaveThe Seattle Times...a sometimes breathtaking, sometimes sordid and always beautifully written rabbit hole of food and drugs and sex and up-all-night and flavors and, eventually, another beginning ... Sweetbitter feels like an updated, female take on Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, but with a sensual additional layer ... Sweetbitter isn’t a book you read for its plot, but for the way Danler — in language that often approaches stream-of-consciousness — creates a time, a place, a feeling.
PositiveThe Seattle Times...a brief work that you might read in one sitting; not so much a page-turner as a page-seducer ... It’s over almost before it starts, and before you’re quite sure just who Stub really is, but it casts a hypnotic spell; something about how childhood looks in the mind’s dusty mirror, and how words can form a blanket that keeps us warm.
The Magician KingLev Grossman
PositiveThe Seattle Times...its sequel The Magician King, with Quentin as a glib monarch in a land far, far away — squint and it looks like Narnia — struggles to find its bearings. The new book has touches of the first's trademark wit...but less of its likability, as the sardonic but vulnerable teens have become snarky, somewhat remote young adults ... Grossman further hampers the pace by telling two stories simultaneously, constantly interrupting one to return to the other ... Veering back and forth between its two stories, even as it careens from location to location in the real world and back again, The Magician King is crammed with plot — but much of it races past, leaving little impression behind.
The Paying GuestsSarah Waters
PositiveThe Seattle TimesThe Paying Guests is long and it starts off slowly, and I wouldn’t blame a reader who put the book aside after a hundred pages or so. But keep going: Waters reels us in, piling up detail after detail, painting a picture of Frances, a character who, like the postwar city she lives in, doesn’t know what the rules are anymore. Told from her point of view, caught together with Lillian in first a dream and then a nightmare, the book becomes a page-turner. You find yourself racing through, wondering how on Earth all this will turn out, worrying about how these two lost, vulnerable women can possibly emerge unscathed … Her depiction of lost love — between Frances and Christina — is deeply moving.
Today Will Be DifferentMaria Semple
PositiveThe Seattle Times...[a] zippy roller coaster of a novel...the ride ends, as so many do, in the same place it began, but with the view looking just a bit different. The reader disembarks with a happy sigh; ready to ride again ... Today Will Be Different starts off as a funny, rant-y novel and becomes, by its end, an unexpectedly heartfelt exploration of a woman’s inner life. (And yes, it’s still funny.)
Mister MonkeyFrancine Prose
RaveThe Seattle TimesAnd by its end, Prose has created something greater than the sum of those individual voices: a show and its audience, a community, a city. A goofball comedy about making bad art, about the poignancy of old age gazing at childhood, about hopes and dreams and settling and why an emergency-room nurse might race from her shift to arrive, still in scrubs, at a stage door.
Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief LifePeter Ackroyd
RaveThe Seattle Times...260 tautly written pages of biographical fact, film criticism, character analysis and just enough well-sourced quirky gossip — none of it new, but much of it delicious ... Ackroyd blends plenty of thoughtful insight into the mix ... a masterful book on the Master of Suspense: like all good movies, it’s over too soon.
The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
RaveThe Seattle Times… a long, sad, beautifully written first-person adventure for Theo and for the painting, chained together by fate … You can see echoes of The Secret History here — the poignant solitude of the young male protagonist; the long days spent drunk or high, as if time was something not just to kill, but to annihilate; the desperate attempts to squash a deed that can’t be undone … Tartt has demonstrated a remarkable ability to combine page-turning plot twists with achingly beautiful prose. You may not always like Theo, but you stay with him, remembering that this is, at heart, a boy still longing for his mother (whose character haunts the pages of this novel like a smiling ghost).
Vampires in the Lemon GroveKaren Russell
RaveThe Seattle TimesMonsters abide in Karen Russell’s new short-story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove; both the horror-movie kind, and the hidden sort that live within each of us … Russell’s stories let us accept, without questioning, that which is unexplainable; there’s a you-couldn’t-make-this-up quality to her writing that makes it simultaneously fantastical and real.
A God in RuinsKate Atkinson
RaveThe Seattle TimesThe novel unfolds episodically, jumping from 1944 to 1925 to 2012 and backward and forward again — and, no matter the time, the narrator knows what lies ahead...but that narrator is sly; withholding some details while providing others, until the book’s final pages seem to explode in light, like a bird flying into the sun … You don’t have to have read Life After Life to understand and appreciate this book (though you might miss a couple of references). But I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t want to experience both, for the pleasure of Atkinson’s prose — every page feels like a generous treasure hunt for gems — and for the feeling each book gives, of becoming lost within something bigger than ourselves, something grand and dazzling and real.
Sweet ToothIan McEwan
RaveThe Seattle TimesSweet Tooth, is a story of spying and of reading; two activities that blur together for us as we lose ourselves in the book. For what is reading fiction, really, but spying — gazing at a life that isn't ours; observing characters moving through their plots, rarely knowing that they're being watched? … There's an irresistible thread running through Sweet Tooth: that of reading as a compulsive urge (to satisfy a sweet tooth, you might say), and of writing as a revelation of someone's true — or invented — self … As Serena reads Tom and we read McEwan, taking pleasure in each layer, Sweet Tooth moves elegantly toward its inevitable conclusion: Trust — in life, and in narrative fiction — is hard-earned, and surprisingly elusive.
The SilkwormRobert Galbraith
RaveThe Seattle TimesThe Silkworm, which begins a few months after the events of the previous book, is also a murder mystery, set in another world with which Rowling is well acquainted: publishing. Novelist Owen Quine has gone missing; his timid, rumpled wife asks Strike to find him. He does so — that is, Quine’s corpse, under appalling circumstances better not described here. And with that, off we go, into the brutal London winter of 2010, listening to gossip at publishing parties and posh restaurant lunches as Strike and Robin gradually untangle the web the remarkably nasty Quine has spun … Rowling/Galbraith writes with wit and affection for detective-novel tradition, and races us through a twisty plot so smoothly that you won’t notice as the hours tick by.
Let the Great World SpinColum McCann
RaveThe Seattle TimesThrough a Joycean tangle of voices — including that of a fictionalized Petit — he weaves a portrait of a city and a moment, dizzyingly satisfying to read and difficult to put down … Like Joyce's Ulysses — also a portrait of a city and a day — the chapters' formats and prose styles vary widely … Not everyone here is admirable, but all are depicted with sympathy and care. Each leaves its own color on the book's canvas and then departs; no narrator is repeated except the tightrope walker, the conductor who has brought this orchestra together.
Goodbye, VitaminRachel Khong
RaveThe Seattle Times...[a] slim, wistful book; it’s the sort that’ll break your heart but leave you smiling ... Khong, writing in wry episodic chunks, somehow makes this story never sentimental, rarely sad and ever-surprising: Ruth, a naturally funny narrator, immediately becomes a friend. And while a story about a parent whose mind is dimming can’t possibly have a happy ending, Khong pulls off something nearly as good, leaving her characters surrounded by warm Christmas lights and glowing with something else. Ruth doesn’t name it, but it’s love.
The ImmortalistsChloe Benjamin
RaveThe Seattle TimesBenjamin slips into each of the characters’ heads and lets us live there for a while, writing in a delicate third-person voice that knows everyone’s secrets. There are moments as taut as a thriller, where time disappears as you turn pages; and passages of quiet compassion, as the characters reflect on the bonds of siblinghood, on the idea of home, on how those we have lost can still manage — miraculously and mysteriously — to stay with us, in ways that we can’t always explain. Its ending is unexpectedly emotional, as a wise secondary character comes to realize that 'magic is only one tool among many for keeping one another alive.'”