Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of The Totally Hip Video Book Review at The Washington Post. Before coming to Washington, he was editor of the Books section at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. He can be found on Twitter @RonCharles
RaveThe Washington PostBarkskins is an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters ... such is the magnetism of Proulx’s narrative that there’s no resisting her thundering cascade of stories. By drilling deep into the woods that enabled this country to conquer the world, Proulx has laid out the whole history of American capitalism and its rapacious destruction of the land ... With its dozens of characters spread over hundreds of years, Barkskins could easily have collapsed into a great muddle of voices, but each of them is so distinct and so brilliantly choreographed that they never blur ... a towering new work of environmental fiction.
The City of MirrorsJustin Cronin
MixedThe Washington Post...before anybody does any leaping, The City of Mirrors”slows down so much you can barely find a pulse. There’s even a 100-page novella dumped in here about a lonely kid who goes to Harvard, falls in love with his buddy’s girlfriend, and eventually gets jilted as he waits for her in Grand Central Terminal ... But at least from this point onward, The City of Mirrors is a flesh-ripping terror-fest ... It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday.
PanThe Washington PostAs a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire ... It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props isn’t sufficient to modernize Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humor that’s merely glib or crude.
Bright Precious DaysJay McInerney
MixedThe Washington PostMcInerney has long been a distinctly New York novelist, but Bright, Precious Days looks downright myopic in its focus on the rarefied concerns of a certain class of New Yorkers ... Still, as a social satirist, McInerney can be so spot-on that you want to call your housekeeper upstairs and read her some of the funny bits ... despite the dazzlingly smart style of McInerney’s prose, there’s a wavering tone in this novel, a sense that the author is still lusting after the very things he’s mocking.
RaveThe Washington PostIan McEwan’s preposterously weird little novel, is more brilliant than it has any right to be ... surprisingly suspenseful, dazzlingly clever and gravely profound ... Nutshell offers the unmatched pleasure of McEwan’s prose, inflected with witty echoes of Shakespeare.
The Innocent Have Nothing to FearStuart Stevens
MixedThe Washington PostClearly, Stevens has assembled all the accoutrements for a crazy political novel, but it suffers from a disappointing lack of satiric courage ... Pining for a satire fit for our times, we get instead a perfectly reasonable Romneyesque comedy that probably has binders full of uproarious incidents stuffed away in a drawer somewhere.
The HopefulsJennifer Close
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Hopefuls is a hilarious gripefest about what it feels like to be caught in the gravitational pull of Washington ... [the] winking humor and especially the real affection between Beth and Matt make The Hopefuls a pleasure to read. Close has a light, precise touch about the way a young marriage works when the partners are caught between old ideals and new realities ... Unfortunately, leaving D.C. robs the novel of its rich satirical milieu — the Texas setting is not as entertaining — and it cramps the story into the narrow confines of a souring friendship ... The Hopefuls offers a welcome mixture of humor and wisdom about the good people who run this country — or, for some reason, want to.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
RaveThe Washington Post...a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era ... [the railroad] gains real heft as a symbol of bravery and perseverance, a subterranean force in the story, which usually remains strikingly realistic ... The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
RaveThe Washington PostLouise Erdrich’s new novel, LaRose, begins with the elemental gravitas of an ancient story: One day while hunting, a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s 5-year-old son. Such a canyon of grief triggers the kind of emotional vertigo that would make anyone recoil. But you can lean on Erdrich, who has been bringing her healing insight to devastating tragedies for more than 30 years...The recurring miracle of Erdrich’s fiction is that nothing feels miraculous in her novels. She gently insists that there are abiding spirits in this land and alternative ways of living and forgiving that have somehow survived the West’s best efforts to snuff them out.
Everybody's FoolRichard Russo
PositiveThe Washington PostThree dead — and we’re just getting started. But that’s the abiding wonder of Russo’s novel, which bears down on two calamitous days and exploits the action in every single minute. From the cemetery, this ramshackle plot quickly starts grabbing at mudslides, grave robbery, collapsing buildings, poisonous snakes, drug deals, arson, lightning strikes and toxic goo. North Bath is a sleepy little town that never sleeps...That’s a testament to Russo’s narrative skill, which keeps all of these characters careening through a long book devoted to a very short period of time. His success stems largely from the fact that no tangent ever feels tangential in these pages, even if Russo sometimes leans too heavily on his sad-sack shtick.
Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson
RaveThe Washington PostThe six stories in Adam Johnson’s new collection, Fortune Smiles, will worm into your mind and ruin your balance for a few days ... Johnson’s style is quiet and unassuming, a gentle reflection of the muted people he usually writes about. But restraint only increases the intensity of these stories and makes their visceral effect more surprising. His characters are cramped by circumstance or weakness, struggling to make sense of situations they can’t entirely understand or even believe.
God Help the ChildToni Morrison
PanThe Washington PostBecause her latest work offers curious reflections of where she began in The Bluest Eye, it’s tempting to read God Help the Child as a capstone of her jeweled career. Once again, we have a young woman whose life is overdetermined by the pigment of her skin in a culture torn with sexual violence. But unfortunately, God Help the Child carries only a faint echo of that earlier novel’s power ... [Morrisson] leaves these people no interior life, a problem that grows more pronounced as the novel rolls along from trauma to trauma, throwing off wisdom like Mardi Gras bling. While attempting to create a kind of fable about the lingering effects of maternal neglect and racial self-hatred, Morrison ends up instead with characters who keep phasing between skimpy realism and overwrought fantasy.
Gold Fame CitrusClaire Vaye Watkins
RaveThe Washington PostWatkins is a master of tantalizing details, the unspoken tensions and disappointments of these lovers scraping around in the arid opulence of scorpion-infested bathrooms and empty swimming pools ... But the real genius of Gold Fame Citrus is its speculation about the isolated colonies that might survive in this aboveground hell. How might laggards, wanderers, fanatics and thieves coalesce? Once civilization decamps to the relatively moist East Coast? Watkins conjures the mythologies and mores that might sprout in such infertile soil.
The SympathizerViet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe Washington Post...surely a new classic of war fiction. Nguyen has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. Startlingly insightful and perilously candid ... The contemporary relevance of [the] devastating final section can’t be ignored, but The Sympathizer is too great a novel to feel bound to our current soul-searching about the morality of torture. And it’s even more than a thoughtful reflection about our misguided errand in Southeast Asia. Transcending these historical moments, Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.
Mothering SundayGraham Swift
PositiveThe Washington PostNext to Swift’s previous novels, such as Last Orders or his emotionally devastating Wish You Were Here, Mothering Sunday feels elliptical, even minor. But it’s an elegant reflection on the impulse to tell stories. For Jane, he writes, 'it would always be the task of getting to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith: the trade of truth-telling.' Surely, Swift is describing himself, too.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally HemingsStephen O'Connor
RaveThe Washington Post...a colossal postmodern novel that’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre ... With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.
The NestCynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
PositiveThe Washington PostFor all the acerbic humor that Sweeney wrings from this family’s self-absorption, she maintains a refreshing balance of tenderness. Rather than skewering the Plumbs to death, she pokes them, as though probing to find the humanity beneath their cynical crust. And because we need some relief from the Plumbs — lest they grow intolerably annoying — the book expands to explore their far more mature friends, relations and victims.
The Little Red ChairsEdna O'Brien
RaveThe Washington PostIn the end, what leaves one in humbled awe of The Little Red Chairs is O’Brien’s dexterity, her ability to shift without warning — like life — from romance to horror, from hamlet to hell, from war crimes tribunal to midsummer night’s dream. And through it all, she embeds the most perplexing moral challenge ever conceived in the struggles of one lonely, middle-aged woman who just wanted a baby but now wanders the earth along with so many others, 'craving the valleys and small instances of mercy.'”
Melancholy AccidentsPeter Manseau
PositiveThe Washington Post[A] haunting little book ... While acknowledging that his compendium of mayhem may read like a political argument against guns, that wasn’t his intention. The people he’d really like to reach are gun owners. Their adaptation of smart guns, which electronically limit who can fire them, is our best chance for progress, he says.
The Year of the RunawaysSunjeev Sahota
RaveThe Washington Post“The Year of the Runaways is essentially The Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century: the Joads’ ordeal stretched halfway around the planet, from India to England. By following a handful of young men, Sahota has captured the plight of millions of desperate people struggling to find work, to eke out some semblance of a decent life in a world increasingly closed-fisted and mean. If you’re willing to have your vague impressions of the dispossessed brought into scarifying focus, read this novel.
A Doubter’s AlmanacEthan Canin
RaveThe Washington Post“A Doubter’s Almanac is a long, complex novel about math, which sounds like the square root of tedium, but suspend your flight instinct for a moment. Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.
This Is Why I CameMary Rakow
PositiveThe Washington PostNot everyone will take this little book and eat it up. Readers who treat the Scriptures as fragile goblets of orthodoxy may find This Is Why I Came upsetting or distasteful. And yet, an unmistakable glimmer of faith radiates from these biblical reimaginings, even though they’re presented as the work of a woman who “can’t believe in God.” What the novel demands is a willingness to enter the lacunae of the familiar Bible stories and wrestle with the angel of Rakow’s poetic vision.
The High Mountains of PortugalYann Martel
PositiveThe Washington PostWith Martel’s signature mixture of humor and pathos, these three stories explore the rugged terrain of grief. But they also contain the author’s reflections on the connection between storytelling and faith ... Martel’s writing has never been more charming, a rich mixture of sweetness that’s not cloying and tragedy that’s not melodramatic.
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a FistSunil Yapa
RaveThe Washington PostBy following the attenuation of moral responsibility that political leaders depend on, Yapa demonstrates the grotesque process that encourages otherwise good, reasonable people to perfect methods of maiming and blinding peaceful protesters.
MixedThe Washington PostAtwood gives over several chapters to Felix’s discussions of The Tempest, and despite the essentially academic content of these scenes, they’re delightful ... Although Atwood acknowledges this painful issue in passing, it never attains the emotional weight one expects given her cast of prisoners and the racial taint of modern incarceration. Instead, this is, weirdly, a revision of The Tempest in which the monster-slave is even more defanged than in the original story ... And the book’s erratic tone is exacerbated further by a tragedy that Atwood has inserted into Shakespeare’s plot ... an exercise like this volume feels limited to teachers and students of The Tempest. Others are likely to find that for all its clever echoes and allusions, the whole production melts into air, into thin air.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
RaveThe Washington PostSwelling with a contrapuntal symphony of passions, Fates and Furies is that daring novel that seems to reach too high — and then somehow, miraculously, exceeds its own ambitions.
Mister MonkeyFrancine Prose
PositiveThe Washington PostFertile as the play is for drama and satire, Prose’s novel leaps out beyond the circle of theater people ... this [elderly widower] chapter — a masterful short story, really — is almost too good, in that it casts a shadow over the others, which don’t attain the same level of complexity or poignancy ... a lovely tribute to the transformative value of imagination.
All the HousesKaren Olsson
PositiveThe Washington PostWith its wry humor and gentle insights into the way we draw away from one another at exactly the wrong time, All the Houses is more than just an illuminating story about the nameless victims of political scandal. It’s a story about how our insecurities encourage us to smother our affections — and a reminder that we’re running out of time to make amends.
The MareMary Gaitskill
PositiveThe Washington PostThrough this storm of female voices gallops that fierce mare, the object of Velvet’s affection, the subject of her dreams, the creature that could deliver her from turmoil — or kill her. Gaitskill’s ability to control all this energy, all this yearning, is just one of the many rewards of her brave novel.
Mr. SplitfootSamantha Hunt
PositiveThe Washington PostHunt refuses to let any conclusions solidify in her wry prose...Turned around and around in these woods, you won’t always know where you are, but there’s a rare pleasure in this blend of romance and phantoms.
The PastTessa Hadley
RaveThe Washington PostReaders hoping for a British telenovela will be disappointed. But for anyone who cherishes Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, the book offers similar deep pleasures. Like those North American masters of the domestic realm, Hadley crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural. If the surface of her stories is lightly etched with charm and humor, darker forces burrow underneath.
The Japanese LoverIsabel Allende
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Japanese Lover feels, at first, as nutritious as Grandma’s freshly baked sugar cookies. But there’s nothing cloying about this unabashedly sweet story — and nothing unambitious about it, either.
Avenue of MysteriesJohn Irving
PositiveThe Washington PostThe novelist’s reflections on his life and work attain a sweet profundity that should win over anyone who follows his journey to the end.
The Kindness of EnemiesLeila Aboulela
PositiveThe Washington Post...a rich, multilayered story, a whole syllabus of compelling topics. As a novelist, Aboulela moves confidently between dramatizing urgent, contemporary issues and providing her audience with sufficient background to follow these discussions about the changing meaning of jihad, the history of Sufism and the racial politics of the war on terror.
Thirteen Ways of LookingColum McCann
RaveThe Washington PostThe irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways.
Slade HouseDavid Mitchell
PositiveThe Washington PostThat structure sounds repetitive, like five identical tombstones lying in a row...But the sticky web of repetitions and parallels in these stories grows increasingly ominous and, yes, ghoulishly funny.
What Belongs to YouGarth Greenwell
RaveThe Washington PostThis is a novel of aggressive introspection, but Greenwell writes with such candor and psychological precision that the effect is oddly propulsive. The sustained tension between the narrator and Mitko will remind some readers of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room ... [a] perfect articulation of despair that anyone with a heart will hear.
The GirlsEmma Cline
RaveThe Washington PostThe most remarkable quality of this novel is Cline’s ability to articulate the anxieties of adolescence in language that’s gorgeously poetic without mangling the authenticity of a teenager’s consciousness. The adult’s melancholy reflection and the girl’s swelling impetuousness are flawlessly braided together...[F]or a story that traffics in the lurid notoriety of the Manson murders, The Girls is an extraordinary act of restraint. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Cline has written a wise novel that’s never showy: a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror.
The TerranautsT.C. Boyle
PanThe Washington Post...how a writer as exciting as Boyle could produce such a dull novel remains a mystery. As it drags on for more than 500 pages, The Terranauts inspires a sense of tedium that could only be matched by being trapped in a giant piece of Tupperware ... like watching The Bachelor: Terrarium Edition. The adolescent souls in these adult bodies are numbingly petty — and the novel offers no relief from their flat voices, their obvious confessions, their poisonous jealousy.
RaveThe Washington Post...very soon, we’re thoroughly invested in these families, wrapped up in their lives by Patchett’s storytelling, which has never seemed more effortlessly graceful. This is minimalism that magically speaks volumes ... Drawing us through this complex genealogy of guilt and forgiveness, Patchett finally delivers us to a place of healing that seems quietly miraculous, entirely believable.
The Boat RockerHa Jin
RaveThe Washington Post...a strange, intense novel from Ha Jin about the glories and limits of the freedom of the press ... one of the most unsettling books about the moral dimensions of modern journalism ... Aside from a delicious satire of book publicity — an industry so unhitched from reality that it’s hard to parody its exaggerations — The Boat Rocker also dramatizes the vast shadow world of Internet news.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PositiveThe Washington PostAny summary is bound to lay a heavy hand on [the book's] jumbled structure, the way peculiar characters and strange events are introduced only to be identified and tied together in surprising ways much later. I wouldn’t blame you for assuming the book contains more reels of weirdness than you’re willing to sit through. But, honestly, while the novel’s form is promiscuous, its moral dimensions feel vast. Once Spiotta has her disparate storylines in motion, they resonate with each other in ways you can’t stop thinking about.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
RaveThe Washington Post...a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer ... The grade school scenes are small masterworks of storytelling in which the child’s innocence is delicately threaded with the adult’s irony. If the style of Swing Time is less exuberant than her previous work, Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever ... Swing Time may be the most perceptive one I’ve read about the distortion field created by fame and wealth ... Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction.
Huck Out WestRobert Coover
RaveThe Washington PostIs this resurrection something to celebrate, like the boys showing up at their own funeral? You may be tempted to sigh, 'I been there before,' but you ain’t been here before, not like this anyways ... Coover sustains that magical act of literary ventriloquism for 300 pages, preserving Twain’s raggedly, tall-tale patter spiced with the same accidental aphorisms. But Coover’s feat of transformation is ultimately more interesting than his imitation ... despite a rich vein of slapstick humor, Huck Out West is a more melancholy novel than Twain’s original. 'All stories is sad stories,' Huck says, and we come to see that his “desperate low-spiritedness” stems from the trauma of witnessing so much of the human slaughter that federal expansion demanded ... f the story meanders as much as the Mississippi River, it also gathers considerable force as Huck struggles to stay out of trouble, avoid Gen. Hard Ass and resist Tom’s increasingly malevolent friendship.
RaveThe Washington PostMoonglow is a wondrous book that celebrates the power of family bonds and the slipperiness of memory ... [The] fusion of history, slapstick and menace sets the trajectory for the rest of this lovable novel ... This is Chabon at his magical best, stitching his grandfather into the fabric of the 20th century in a way that seems either ludicrous or plausible depending on how the light hits ... a thoroughly enchanting story about the circuitous path that a life follows, about the accidents that redirect it, and about the secrets that can be felt but never seen, like the dark matter at the center of every family’s cosmos.
The NIxNathan Hill
PositiveThe Washington Post...we’re in the presence of a major new comic novelist ... The Nix presents that strain of gigantism unique to debut novelists who fear this will be their only shot. The book practically tears off its own binding in its desperation to contain every aside, joke, riff and detour ... hundreds more pages could have been sliced away from The Nix. And yet there’s no denying what a brilliant, endearing writer Hill is.
RaveThe Washington Post[Gyasi is] asking us to consider the tangled chains of moral responsibility that hang on our history. This is one of the many issues that Homegoing explores so powerfully ... [the] structure — essentially a novel in linked stories — places extraordinary demands on Gyasi. Each chapter must immediately introduce a new setting and new characters making fresh claims on our engagement. (The family tree at the front of the book is an invaluable reader’s crutch.) But the speed with which Gyasi sweeps across the decades isn’t confusing so much as dazzling, creating a kind of time-elapsed photo of black lives in America and in the motherland ... Gyasi, who is just 26 and reportedly received more than $1 million for this book, has developed a style agile enough to reflect the remarkable range of her first novel ... truly captivating.
A Gambler's AnatomyJonathan Lethem
MixedThe Washington PostLethem adopts just the right tone for this handsome rake, who can hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near ... Lethem’s reflections on faces and identities would enlist more interest if we could feel a stronger pulse in Bruno — or if the concept of a man without a self were developed to more harrowing existential effect ... Lethem’s wit germinates and blooms within single sentences, which makes him a pleasure to read. And he’s a master at letting the weirdness of situations slowly accrue. But too many of the strange elements in A Gambler’s Anatomy merely bleed away.
The Dark Flood RisesMargaret Drabble
RaveThe Washington PostMargaret Drabble has written a novel about aging and death, which for American readers should make it as popular as a colostomy bag. That’s a pity because Drabble, 77, is as clear-eyed and witty a guide to the undiscovered country as you’ll find ... The irony of Fran’s perpetual motion — and a source of the novel’s humor — is that she’s annoyed by the way her fellow senior citizens resist their golden years, years that now stretch on further for more people than ever before ... There’s nothing schematic about the range of these characters, but eventually it becomes clear that they make up a kind of catalogue of doom ... Running through all these aging lives are recurring references to a London revival of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Although less famous than his Waiting for Godot, it’s the perfect complement to Fran’s manic efforts to stay above the ever-rising grains of sand collecting around her. Drabble never sinks to the level of Beckett’s despair, but she’s refreshingly frank about the tragicomedy of aging. Remembering one of her dearly departed friends, Fran thinks, 'She never said a dull word.' The same might be said of Margaret Drabble.
Another BrooklynJacqueline Woodson
PositiveThe Washington Post...a short but complex story that arises from simmering grief. It lulls across the pages like a mournful whisper ... It’s as much as a compliment as a complaint to say that I wish the story were fuller. There’s enough material here for a much longer novel, and, though Woodson’s prose is always carefully constructed, she’s sometimes so elliptical that complicated issues are illuminated only obliquely ... But that’s the real attraction of this novel, which mixes wonder and grief so poignantly.
RaveThe WashingtonPlotless novels about lost young men represent a tedious subgenre of contemporary literature, but, naturally, Oz rises above that by rendering his hapless hero so comically sympathetic ... depends entirely on the complexity of Oz’s themes and the tender elegance of his style ... Although a certain degree of familiarity with mid-20th-century political history is helpful, Oz gracefully weaves that exposition into this novel of ideas. And although the story certainly involves arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict that Oz has made in his nonfiction work, it never reads like an allegory of the author’s political views.
A Book of American MartyrsJoyce Carol Oates
RaveThe Washington PostAs the Republican Congress plots to cripple Planned Parenthood and the right to choose hinges on one vacant Supreme Court seat, American Martyrs probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as we hear that some novel about a wealthy New Yorker suffering ennui is a story about 'how we live now,' here is a novel that actually fulfills that promise, a story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul ... They are American families so separated by opportunity and ideology that they could be living in different countries, but Oates’s sympathetic attention to the dimensions of their lives renders both with moving clarity ... Oates has mastered an extraordinary form commensurate to her story’s breadth. The book is written in a structure fluid enough to move back and forth in time, to shift from first to third person without warning, sometimes breaking into italics as though this febrile text couldn’t contain the fervency of these words ... To enter this masterpiece is to be captivated by the paradox of that tragic courage and to become invested in Oates’s search for some semblance of atonement, secular or divine.
The One-Eyed ManRon Currie
PanThe Washington PostIn these latter days of 'alternative facts,' the idea of someone fearlessly dedicated to total, literal honesty sounds awfully appealing. I only wish I could say that this absurd story feels more subtle in execution than in summary. Alas, the plotting is sketchy, the social satire clunky. K.’s Socratic assault on the illogical, racist and shortsighted beliefs of his fellow citizens raises not a single surprisingly or truly provocative moment ... [Currie] knows what surprising havoc the persistence of grief can wreak on the heart. He doesn’t need a gimmicky plot premise; human life is strange and existential enough.
Selection DayAravind Adiga
RaveThe Washington PostAdiga’s wit and raw sympathy will carry uninitiated readers beyond their ignorance of cricket ... There’s nothing boring here, though. Adiga’s paragraphs bounce along like a ball hit hard down a dirt street. One gets the general direction, but the vectors of his story can change at any moment as we chase after these characters ... What’s uncomfortable about this story begins like an itch, but for a time, the zaniness of Adiga’s novel camouflages its darker themes ... Selection Day evolves into a bittersweet reflection on the limits of what we can select ... Adiga’s voice is so exuberant, his plotting so jaunty, that the sadness of this story feels as though it is accumulating just outside our peripheral vision.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
PositiveThe Washington Post...a strikingly original production, a divisively odd book bound either to dazzle or alienate readers ... This is a book that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It seems at first a clever clip-job, an extended series of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and later scholars, each one meticulously attributed...But quickly Lincoln in the Bardo teaches us how to read it. The quotations gathered from scores of different voices begin to cohere into a hypnotic conversation that moves with the mysterious undulations of a flock of birds ... Indeed, the ghosts threaten to overtake the novel. Clearly, Saunders enjoys their macabre antics — but the heart of the story remains Abraham Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night to caress the head of his lifeless boy...It’s at this point in the novel that Saunders’s deep compassion shines through most clearly.
Behold the DreamersImbolo Mbue
RaveThe Washington Post...illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse ...Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller, inflecting her own voice with the tenor of her characters’ thoughts and speech. She can enjoy the comedy of their naivete without subjecting them to mockery ... There’s a persistent warmth in this book, a species of faith that’s too often singed away by wit in contemporary fiction. For all its comedy, Mbue’s social commentary never develops that toxic level of irony.
The One InsideSam Shepard
MixedThe Washington PostFans of his short stories and autobiographical writings will hear echoes of the playwright’s life all across this familiarly bleak landscape ... much of the book’s contemporary story has the substance of an extended, self-pitying sigh...There’s an awful lot of wandering around the house, looking for the dogs, feeling bereft. He thinks about suicide, mulls his dreams, considers the smell of his urine ... insights, often evocatively phrased, are the erratic rewards of reading this fitful book. Sometimes, they come in a single phrase, such as Shepard’s appraisal of T.S. Eliot: 'essential ideas redolent of stale gin and suicide.' But the best parts of The One Inside are those least hobbled by its fractured structure and mannered dialogue. When he stops letting vagueness masquerade as profundity, when he actually tells a story about a real man caught in the peculiar throes of a particular moment, he can still make the ordinary world feel suddenly desperate and strange.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyHannah Tinti
RaveThe Washington PostThis is the ancient myth of Hercules — the plot of all plots — re-engineered into a modern-day wonder. Tinti knows how to cast the old campfire spell. I was so desperate to find out what happened to these characters that I had to keep bargaining with myself to stop from jumping ahead to the end ... a master class in literary suspense. Hercules himself might feel daunted by the labor of writing tales for 12 bullets, but Tinti is indefatigable. Each one of these stories drops us into a different setting somewhere in the country, establishes a tense situation in progress and then barrels along until slugs start tearing into flesh. Given the repetition, you would think we would come to anticipate Tinti’s methods and grow weary with these near-escapes, but each one is a heart-in-your-throat revelation, a thrilling mix of blood and love ... This would all be empty calories if Tinti weren’t also such a gorgeous writer, if she didn’t have such a profound sense of the complex affections between a man wrecked by sorrow and the daughter he hoped 'would not end up like him.'”
American WarOmar El Akkad
RaveThe Washington PostThe American War he creates is an unsettling amalgam of 19th-century hatred and 21st-century technology: the War Between the States amplified by the wonders of modern engagement to claim tens of millions of victims ... El Akkad demonstrates a profound understanding of the corrosive culture of civil war, the offenses that give rise to new hypocrisies and mythologies, translating terrorists into martyrs and acts of despair into feats of heroism ... this story is always Sarat’s. El Akkad has done nothing less than reveal how a curious girl evolves into a pitiless fighter. Her change appears subtle month to month, but shocking by the end ... perhaps most relevant is the way El Akkad re-creates the rhetoric of factional righteousness, the self-validating claims of the aggrieved that keep every war fueled.
Ill WillDan Chaon
RaveThe Washington PostBefore beginning his exceptionally unnerving new book, go ahead and lock the door, but it won’t help. You’ll still be stuck inside yourself, which for Chaon is the most precarious place to be ... Chaon, who lost his own wife — the writer Sheila Schwartz — in 2008, captures the obscuring effects of grief with extraordinary tenderness. But he sows that misery in the soil of a literary thriller that germinates more terror than sorrow. There’s something irresistibly creepy about this story that stems from the thrill of venturing into illicit places of the mind ... Chaon’s great skill is his ability to re-create that compulsive sense we have in nightmares that we’re just about to figure everything out — if only we tried a little harder, moved a little faster ... Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what’s happening, we’ve gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.
The GoldfinchDonna Tartt
RaveThe Washington PostWhile the world has been transformed over the past decade, one of the most remarkable qualities of The Goldfinch is that it arrives singed with 9/11 terror but redolent of a 19th-century novel … This is, among many other things, a novel of survivor’s guilt, of living in ‘the generalized miasma of shame and unworthiness and being-a-burden’ … While grief may be the novel’s bassline, Theo’s wit and intelligence provide the book’s endearing melody … Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings.
The CorrectionsJonathan Franzen
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe Corrections represents a giant leap for Jonathan Franzen – not only beyond his previous two novels, but beyond just about anybody else's … The book is wildly brilliant, funny, and wise, a rich feast of cultural analysis... Franzen's powers of description are exhaustive but unfailingly witty. His vision is at once enormous and minute, scanning the whole world but still attending with remarkable sympathy to the challenges of this one family … Despite its hooting comedy, The Corrections is ultimately the tragedy of people who believe that their minds, their very thoughts, are essentially chemical. Franzen diagnoses the empty horror of this notion with searing precision.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do … McEwan's knowledge of the inner workings of these characters is so piercing that you can't help feeling sorry for them; only God should have such intimate knowledge … These disparate parts, alike only in their stunning effectiveness, combine to produce a profound exploration of the nature of guilt and the difficulty of absolution. As she clears the fog of adolescence, Briony must confront the destructive power of her fiction, even while pursuing its redemptive possibilities … We're each of us, McEwan suggests, composing our lives. And in those stories we can illustrate ‘the simple truth that other people are as real as us ... and have an equal value.’
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusDave Eggers
RaveChristian Science MonitorThere are so many reasons to dislike this super-hip, self-consciously ironic autobiography that it's something of a disappointment to report how wonderful it is...Of course, his book isn't for everyone (people who don't speak English will find it particularly oblique), but this may be the bridge from the Age of Irony to Some Other As Yet Unnamed Age that we've been waiting for.
Saints for All OccasionsJ. Courtney Sullivan
RaveThe Washington Post...[a] quiet masterpiece ... In a simple style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family ... Indeed, the ferocious discipline of these two sisters is matched only by the author’s. Sullivan never tells too much; she never draws attention to her cleverness; she never succumbs to the temptation of offering us wisdom. She trusts, instead, in the holy power of a humane story told in one lucid sentence after another.
The Schooldays of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
PanThe Washington PostThe details of these novels cannot be matched up in any schematic way with the events of Jesus’ life. Some readers may find this dissonance freeing. To me, it’s irritatingly coy. Like the bystanders in the Gospel of John, I’m left asking: 'How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly' ... The most satisfying parts of the novel come early as Simón struggles to provide David with the love and direction the boy needs. Coetzee has an impeccable ear for the tender patter between a curious child and a conscientious father figure who never wants to lose his patience ... There’s no denying the haunting quality of Coetzee’s measured prose, his ability to suspend ordinary events in a world just a few degrees away from our own. But to what end? Although The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus are presented as allegories, they never yield any interesting allegorical meaning. The result is a story that suggests more profundity than it ever incarnates.
The Tiger's WifeTéa Obreht
RaveThe Washington PostObreht's swirling first novel, The Tiger's Wife, draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can't touch … Her thoughtful narrator must navigate the land mines – literal and political – that still blot the countryside. Natalia's world is a steampunk mingling of modern technology and traditional tools – cellphones and antibiotics alongside picks and poultices … Its sentiments are refreshingly un-American. Anxiously youth-obsessed, we've always been awkward and weird about death; our rituals for grieving and commemorating are still chaotic and ad hoc. But The Tiger's Wife never strays far from the desire of desperate people to do right by the dead, no matter how much time has passed.
No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts
RaveThe Washington PostSurprise: Watts’s novel is unfairly freighted with this allusion to its distant, white ancestor. If you know Fitzgerald’s story intimately, it might be interesting, in some minor, academic way, to trace the lines of influence on her work, but in general that’s a distraction. Watts has written a sonorous, complex novel that’s entirely her own ... [the] plural narrator, knowing and wry, is just one of the novel’s rich pleasures. Without yoking herself to some cumbersome Greek chorus, Watts has invented a communal voice that’s infinitely flexible, capable of surveying the whole depressed town or lingering tenderly in a grieving mother’s mind ... Little happens in this novel in any traditional sense, but it seems constantly in motion because Watts is so captivating a writer ... All of this is conveyed in a prose style that renders the common language of casual speech into natural poetry, blending intimate conversation with the rhythms of gossip, town legend, even song lyrics ... What Watts has done here is more captivating than another retread about the persistence of a crook’s dream. She’s created an indelible story about the substance of a woman’s life.
A Visit from the Goon SquadJennifer Egan
RaveThe Washington PostIf Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, is a medley of voices -- in first, second and third person -- scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.
I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren't-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. And what's best, every movement of this symphony of boomer life plays out through the modern music scene, a white-knuckle trajectory of cool, from punk to junk to whatever might lie beyond. My only complaint is that A Visit From the Goon Squad doesn't come with a CD.
House of NamesColm Tóibín
RaveThe Washington PostThis isn’t just a captivating retelling; it’s a creative reanimation of these indelible characters who are still breathing down our necks across the millennia. And far from feeling constrained by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Tóibín ventures into the lacunae of the old legends and pumps blood even into the silent figures of Greek tragedy ... Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender ... Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.
The LeftoversTom Perrotta
RaveThe Washington PostSaints and sinners, Christians and Muslims, even atheists and homosexuals have all been gathered up indiscriminately by the Son of God. Or something. It’s impossible to say … What we have is a novel soaked in mourning from its very first pages: a survivor’s tale, like a story of 9/11 without any ashes or anyone to blame, which, of course, is a recipe for self-mutilation in the dark minds of the inconsolable … Leavened with humor and tinged with creepiness, this insightful novel draws us into some very dark corners of the human psyche. Sad as these people are, their sorrow is absorbing rather than depressing.
Woman No. 17Edan Lepucki
RaveThe Washington PostThis is a story packed with wicked and wickedly funny confessions about a host of hallowed subjects ... Woman No. 17 tastes like a juice box of suburban satire laced with Alfred Hitchcock. Lepucki’s witty lines arrive as dependably as afternoon playtime, but her reflection on motherhood and women’s friendships is deadly serious ... Despite the novel’s persistent humor, Lepucki captures the cocktail of love, desperation and guilt that can sometimes poison parents of children with special needs. This is, among many things, a story about the ways we imagine we hurt our children and the ways we imagine they hurt us ... The disclosures that Lepucki engineers in this smart novel are sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, always irresistible.
The FlamethrowersRachel Kushner
RaveThe Washington PostThe Flamethrowers is a high-wire performance worthy of Philippe Petit. On lines stretched tight between satire and eulogy, she strolls above the self-absorbed terrain of the New York art scene in the 1970s, providing a vision alternately intimate and elevated … Kushner’s seductive prose is never truly surreal, but she doesn’t present Reno’s adventures in chronological order, which reflects the dreamlike flow of her experiences … The breadth of Kushner’s historical and critical knowledge could be oppressive if this weren’t such an alluring performance. What really dazzles, though, is her ability to steer this zigzag plot so expertly that she can let it spin out of control now and then.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith a mixture of comedy, terror and nostalgia, [Russell] conjures up a run-down theme park 30 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a tourist trap run by a family of phony Indians named the Bigtrees … On this almost make-believe island, the Bigtree children home-school themselves with moldy books from a Library Boat abandoned in the 1950s. They speak with preternaturally mature knowledge without realizing how little they know of the real world. One wrong move and the novel's poignancy could slip into cuteness … She's charted out a strange estuary where heartbreak and comedy mingle to produce a fictional environment that seems semi-magical but emotionally true.