RaveThe Boston GlobeModernist stream of consciousness lives on in the brilliant Dirt Road ... Like a 21st-century, Scottish, working-class, Leopold Bloomian Holden Caulfield, 16-year-old Murdo Macdonald ruminates on boats, sounds, birds, insects, cells, girls, music, work, race, life, and death in a narrative as epic as it is quotidian, an adolescent Hero’s Journey through grief and America ... Through Murdo’s eyes, contemporary America — 'A different world. That was America. Ye thought ye knew it from the movies but ye didnt' — appears defamiliarized yet spot on: our sidewalk-less suburbs and seedy bus stations; convenience-store food and mall walking; weather obsession, security state, guns, and racism. But if both Kelman, a lifelong radical, and his teenage protagonist are skeptical of our politics (the Scottish gathering is threaded with white supremacy), they embrace our music as a powerful unifying force, transcending and bringing together races and cultures. Murdo can never escape the loss of his sister and mother; he can only assuage them. One facet of Dirt Road’s genius is that it recognizes this, offering neither pat catharsis nor improbably definitive resolution. Yet Murdo and his father both move forward in a final move that is unexpected, if a bit fantastic, but perfectly in line with this beautiful novel.
The Golden LegendNadeem Aslam
RaveThe Boston GlobeIf The Golden Legend documents agonizing political and sectarian realities, it is also masterful and compelling fiction, intricately layering symbols and parallels, unspooling its plot in dramatic twists until the very last sentence, and revealing the deep interconnections between the themes of power, principle, love, and loss that underlie those realities. Since the November election, American writers have anxiously questioned the role and value of fiction in the face of national exigency. The Golden Legend demonstrates its necessity.
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward HoweElaine Showalter
RaveThe Boston GlobeThe Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe is a polemic and a pleasure. Showalter deploys her prodigious research and narrative skills, acerbic wit, and feminist commitments to reveal the entwining of Howe’s public and private lives, as she righteously battled her husband and society, and finally saw the glory she always believed she deserved.
MixedThe Boston GlobeWhile the appearance of so many familiar historical tropes like the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement threaten to create a Forrest Gump’-like vibe, there are also illuminating glimpses of less well-known experiences, from free black life in Baltimore and interracial union organizing in 19th-century Alabama coal mines, to African nations manipulating the British and each other during the slave trade. Gyasi is also admirably determined to show the complexities of culpability and affinity ... Homegoing is ultimately a tad schematic. Many of the narrative choices can be justified as the overlaying of myth and history, another of Gyasi’s literary strategies, but they are nonetheless more predictable than they need to be. The writing can also be anachronistic in a way that’s not quite worthy of the novel’s ambitions.
Good on PaperRachel Cantor
RaveThe Boston GlobeIt is not often that a novel comes along that is laugh-out-loud hilarious and thought-provokingly philosophical. Good on Paper is both.
Behold the DreamersImbolo Mbue
RaveThe Boston GlobeMbue’s narrative energy and sympathetic eye soon render these commonplace ingredients vivid, complex, and essential ... though her black characters provide practical and emotional succor to her white ones, especially as the two families further entwine, professionally and personally, she also effectively and pointedly keeps them at the center of the story, a narrative accomplishment too many white authors are still unable to achieve ... [a] beautiful, empathetic novel.
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent NationRebecca Traister
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThis kind of pointed analytic synthesis is Traister’s great strength, and it characterizes the best of the book’s subsequent chapters, which address different aspects of contemporary single women’s lives, from sex and money to friendship and solitude...That said, the topical chapters are not always as compelling. Paeans to female friendship, urban living, and sexual adventurousness rest a bit too heavily on single-life-loving anecdotes from urban writers and activists (a limitation Traister acknowledges), while chapters on marriage and parenting offer little we haven’t read elsewhere.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
PanThe Boston Globe[Foer] seem[s] determined not to tell a compelling story ... Here I Am meanders along via internal monologues, lists, speeches, gnomic pronouncements, Chinese boxes of secrets and lies, and endless conversations — all of varying degrees of interest ... Here I Am was your chance to prove that you’re not just extremely precious and incredibly self-absorbed. Unfortunately, it’s a lost opportunity.
The Boat RockerHa Jin
RaveThe Boston GlobeAt once hilarious and sobering ... shows what happens when truthful stories hit the wall of Chinese politics, and it’s not pretty. At the same time, in crafting a memorable hero and a narrative that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, he affirms the value of fiction itself as not simply a source of profit, but a powerful vehicle for the truths of our times.
The Ninth HourAlice McDermott
RaveThe Boston GlobePlot is in vogue these days, but while The Ninth Hour has a girl on a train — teenage Sally on a misbegotten, infernal trip to Chicago — McDermott largely eschews dramatic arcs. Instead, she fluidly pieces together seemingly minor events, gradually unfolding characters and relationships across decades, and gently but firmly wrestling with the issues they face. In so doing, she reminds us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds ... if McDermott shows the power of this collective of women to support each other and their community, she also reveals how the nuns struggle with — and ultimately find their own ways to reconcile themselves to — the limits of their vocation and each other ... Like James Joyce, whose Dubliners could serve as The Ninth Hour’s literary, historical, and ecclesiastical prequel, McDermott is a virtuoso of language and image, allusion and reflection, reference and symbol ... McDermott once again demonstrates her expansively attentive literary care and its quiet power.
The King Is Always Above the PeopleDaniel Alarcón
MixedThe Boston GlobeDaniel Alarcón’s new collection, The King Is Always Above the People, begins with four top-notch stories...The sophisticated stylistic diversity of this entertaining and inspiring opening quartet is a delight. Yet as the ensuing stories unfurl, some wonderful, some so slight as to feel like filler, the collection begins to resolve into a set of repetitive themes ... If Alarcón explicitly thematizes migration, urbanization, the lives of those left behind and discarded, and the emotional byproducts of geographic and social mobility, a related but distinct theme eventually comes to dominate the book: men coping with the inadequacies of their lives ... Fiction about men is, of course, hardly notable, but Alarcón’s dispirited, frustrated, and endlessly seeking — even when they are successful — men stand out in particular against the flatness of his women. These muted barmaids, wives, mothers, and girlfriends function largely to thwart or succor their men, a banal dichotomy and frustrating misstep for a book with so many strengths ... These stories might be better read on their own than together; while Alarcon is a truly impressive writer, the sum here is less than the parts.
The Vanishing PrincessJenny Diski
RaveThe Boston GlobeDiski’s wonderful story collection, The Vanishing Princess, holds riches for all. Longtime fans will celebrate the very fact of more Diski and thrill to familiar preoccupations in new settings and shapes. Those who know only the self-elegizing Diski will encounter the expansive parameters of her imagination and intellect. Those who read Diski for the first time are in for the delight of discovery ... The three fairy tales that anchor the book speak both to Diski’s timelessness and to her contemporary feminist perspicuity ... The book’s other stories begin in the cold reality of women’s daily lives...What makes these stories quintessentially Diski is the way they balance between the sometimes mundane, sometimes grim, sometimes arresting detail of those lives and the spiraling thoughts of the characters who inhabit them. In so doing, they not infrequently stretch the boundaries of realism .. In all her writing, Diski turned her sharply observant gaze on the stuff of the world — people, places, books, things, oncologist appointments — and then thought hard not only about that stuff, but about the thoughts generated by that stuff and the thoughts further generated by those thoughts. In The Vanishing Princess, her characters are to a degree her avatars, sometimes in their reenactments of scenes and themes detailed elsewhere in memoirs and essays, always in the trenchant thinking that makes their stories — and hers — memorable.