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
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 RoadCormac McCarthy
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don't want to go, forces us to think about questions we don't want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy's mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy's prose and the simple beauty of this hero's love for his son … The book's climax – an immaculate conception of Pilgrim's Progress and 'Mad Max' – is a startling shift for McCarthy, but a tender answer to a desperate prayer. ·
MixedThe Washington PostThis finely fanged tale of neighborly spite and camouflaged jealousy lets you relish your own superiority – if you don't recoil at the narrator's smugness, which is perhaps what always separates Franzen's fans from his detractors … Unfortunately, the novel doesn't offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them with knife-to-the-throat insistence. The word ‘freedom,’ for example, beats through the book frequently enough for a frat-house drinking game. As the characters attain the freedom they craved – from children, from spouses, from work – they inevitably discover that it's unsatisfying and self-destructive … The point to remember is that Freedom is big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous number of readers.
The Marriage PlotJeffrey Eugenides
PositiveThe Washington PostThis is a story about romance and novels — and the bright young people who read them. Or misread them … Eugenides’s love affair with fiction embraces all those contradictions: the novel’s potential to confuse and enlighten, to teach what love is really like even while confusing us with impossible ideals … The novel’s first section, a 127-page masterpiece that takes place on graduation day, twists and soars through one witty, erudite, perfectly choreographed sentence after another...These later sections are not as compelling, although the portrayal of life with a manic-depressive is distressing enough to shred anyone’s 19th-century illusions of romance. Eugenides is frighteningly perceptive about the challenges of mental illness.
RaveThe Washington Post… a big, challenging new novel about the forces that poison our dreams of economic ascendancy. The title is the only thing abbreviated about NW. Everything else is luxuriously spun out, pulled and examined from various angles by an author who, like London, seems to have a camera on every street corner … [Felix’s] section — really a masterful novella in its own right — seems at first like a lengthy aside from the story of Leah and Natalie, but nothing is accidental in this tale of collision and ambition … The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you’ve felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate.
The CircleDave Eggers
PanThe Washington PostThis relentless broadside against the corrosive effects of the connected life is as subtle as a sponsored tweet. Make no mistake: Eggers has seen the Facebook effect, and he does not ‘like’ it. His parable of technological madness reads like a BuzzFeed list of ‘Top 10 Problems With the Web.’ … Given how self-evident these satiric points are, though, it’s a shame Eggers can’t trust his readers more. We hardly need Mae’s ex-boyfriend to look directly into the novel’s webcam and hector us like some Luddite preacher … Part of respecting privacy might be leaving readers space to draw their own interpretations.
A Girl Is a Half-formed ThingEimear McBride
MixedThe Washington PostMcBride writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that reflects her narrator’s fragmented and damaged psyche. It’s a method as clever and effective as it is opaque and confusing … In some sections, the novel’s halting, elliptical style conveys confusion and terror more honestly than coherent paragraphs ever could. McBride has perfected a language commensurate with the scrambled strains of shame, pain and desire felt by a girl being raped by her uncle. Her garbled sentences capture the lacunae of intoxication … I appreciate the stylistic theory behind her tortured style, but I also couldn’t help but wish that these linguistic shenanigans would get out of the way once in a while and let this plaintive story come through unimpeded.
The Round HouseLouise Erdrich
RaveThe Washington PostThe question of who is and who isn’t an Indian gradually becomes the heart of the matter as the crime gets caught in the tangled branches of family and retribution, ‘the gut kick of our history’ … Joe is an incredibly endearing narrator, full of urgency and radiant candor. Looking back over a distance of many years, he describes his wrenching passage from innocence to experience … Beyond the rape and the investigation and any possible retribution, Joe’s sobering evaluation of his relationship with his parents is the most profound drama of the novel.
Salvage the BonesJesmyn Ward
RaveThe Washington PostOn one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy … [Ward’s] description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
The LowlandJhumpa Lahiri
MixedThe Washington PostAmong other things, this multigenerational story is about ‘the intimacy of siblings’...but The Lowland has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way these two brothers need and rely on each other … Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose. But are catatonic grief and alienation enough to sustain a novel?...Although writing this fine is easy to praise, it’s not always easy to enjoy. And there’s something naggingly synthetic about this tableau of woe … If parts of The Lowland feel static, it’s also true that Lahiri can accelerate the passage of time in moments of terror with mesmerizing effect.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThis quiet new novel from Marilynne Robinson couldn't be less compatible with the times – or more essential … Ames's narrative is a mixture of wry commentary on the ministerial life, heartfelt reflections on God, and passing observations on what's happening that day. He makes a good effort to keep the preachy inflection out of his voice, but when it comes through, you can hear what fine guidance he must have given over the course of 2,250 sermons … There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer.
Home: A NovelMarilynne Robinson
RaveThe Washington PostRobinson has constructed a plot so still that it seems at times more a series of tableaux than a novel. The tension in Home is palpable but invisible … Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words ‘grace,’ ‘salvation’ and ‘prayer’ frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition … As a disquisition on the agonies of family love and serial disappointment, Home is sometimes too illuminating to bear.
RaveThe Washington PostThese three exquisite books constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature … Lila crawls into Gilead from another world altogether, a realm of subsistence living where the speculations of theologians are as far away — and useless — as the stars … Robinson has constructed this novel in a graceful swirl of time, constantly moving back to Lila and Doll’s struggles with starvation, desperate thieves and vengeful relatives. We see that dark past only intermittently, as a child’s clear but fragmentary memories or a trauma victim’s flashbacks.
An Untamed StateRoxane Gay
PositiveThe Washington PostOwing to the power of Gay’s prose, the immediacy of the narrator’s voice and the graphic nature of this ordeal, it’s some of the most emotionally exhausting material I’ve ever read … In An Untamed State, she considers questions of class, parental responsibility and especially sex as a weapon of terror in a fantastically exciting novel … it’s easy to imagine An Untamed State pleading for the moral innocence of desperately poor people who have no options except crime and extortion … But the boundless savagery of Mireille’s kidnappers soon makes any kind of sociological apology for their behavior sound obscene. Despite the beatings she receives for talking back, she shreds her captors’ pompous class-warfare cant, refusing to let them imagine that the injustices they’ve suffered absolve them.
The Emperor's ChildrenClaire Messud
RaveThe Washington PostThe three wunderkinds at the center of Messud's engrossing satire are friends from Brown, strutting through life with élan but also with a sense of floundering that chafes at them like a new pair of Christian Louboutin shoes … Yes, they're spoiled, they're self-absorbed, and they're whiny, but above all else they're irresistibly clever and endowed with the kind of hyper-analytical minds that make them fascinating critics of each other and themselves … Beneath the rich surface of this comedy of manners runs Messud's attention to ‘authenticity’: its importance, its elusiveness and the myriad tricks of self-delusion we pursue to imagine we possess it in greater degree than our friends and family.
The Woman UpstairsClaire Messud
RaveThe Washington PostThis may be rage, but it’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers...Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation … Anger provides the heat, but the novel’s real energy comes from its intellectual fuel, its all-consuming analytical drive … Between the heaves of storm, Nora can be an engaging commentator on everything from aesthetics to international relations to aging … Even as that psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped.
The Blind AssassinMargaret Atwood
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorThe title of [Atwood’s] latest book, The Blind Assassin, announces its recklessness right up front. It's a killer novel, all right, but it can see exactly where it's going, even when we can't … In fact, for the first 30 self-consciously oblique pages, The Blind Assassin drags us through a pawn shop of incongruous objects … It's a wild ride, but if you can hang on through this opening, you'll be hooked till the whole tragic story finally comes to rest in the most surprising place … Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton – but don't forget that side order of comic-book science fiction.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseJonathan Safran Foer
PositiveThe Washington PostDespite the dramatically contemporary subject of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer hasn't invented something new as much as shifted the plot of his spectacularly successful Everything Is Illuminated … Journeys like this are dangerous – a little boy could get mugged; an author could get mawkish – but Foer is an extraordinarily sensitive writer, and Oskar's search for a missing parent scratches one of our first anxieties … This novel and his first one effectively trace the smoke from one horror to the next, from New York to Dresden to Hiroshima to the gulag – to every baffled survivor whose happiness was burned away by conflations of politics and hatred that were entirely irrelevant to his life.
The Fortress of SolitudeJonathan Lethem
MixedThe Christian Science Monitor… a novel of boundless energy and startling insight about the conundrum adults impose on children by demanding that they live the ideal of integration that we've been unable to demonstrate ourselves … This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics. And it's packed full of enough pop culture references to send Dennis Miller scrambling to the encyclopedia … Lethem's sentences can just barely contain all he makes them accomplish as he spins ‘the ironized, reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk.’ In fact, almost inevitably the book's structure begins to creak and break apart … The novel never regains the breathtaking verve of its childhood section. Then again, Dylan never regains the breathtaking verve of his childhood either, and that ultimately is the tragedy of The Fortress of Solitude.
The Line of BeautyAlan Hollinghurst
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorLine for line, Hollinghurst's novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book I've read in years. Witty observations about politics, society, and family open like little revelations on every page … It's also an explicitly gay novel. Not just a novel with some gay characters, comfortably on the side or reduced to floppy antics, à la Will and Grace. Hollinghurst rarely strays far from his protagonist's sexual fantasies and exploits … As AIDS ravages the gay community and scandal rocks the Fedden household, Nick finds himself as abandoned as he ever feared, and the compensation of beauty seems heartbreakingly tragic.
Empire FallsRichard Russo
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorEmpire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that’s both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America’s greatest books … Just as the past lingers around Empire Falls, italicized chapters rise up in the main story to trace the strange involvement of Miles’s family with the Whitings. These episodes, tinted with gothic motifs and punctured with tragedy, emphasize the tremors of will and affection that continue to quiver in the survivors … The pressure that directs the Knox River to dump debris along the banks of Empire Falls is no more powerful than the urges of these alienated people to wreak havoc on those nearby. Throughout this mammoth book, Russo describes the politics of town, school, and family with a sense of moral outrage, tempered by comic appreciation of the grotesque.
In AmericaSusan Sontag
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe novel opens with a daring, almost mystical chapter in which Sontag imagines herself conceiving of her characters at a lavish dinner in Russian-occupied Poland in 1875. It's like watching a projectionist trying to bring the film into focus. This kind of self-referential, post-modern trick could be annoying, but Sontag is a brilliant writer who doesn't gauge her intelligence by how confused she can make her audience … Maryna hopes to reincarnate her former theatrical glory. But she discovers painfully that the costs and rewards of being a great European actress are not the same as being an American celebrity. The result is a fascinating exploration of what's real in a culture that preaches authenticity but worships artificiality … Sontag is so comfortable spinning these big ideas through the details of her novel that they never seem heavy or intrusive. In In America we discover the country as the curtain rises on the modern age.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellSusanna Clarke
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no Harry Potter knockoff. It's altogether original — far closer to Dickens than Rowling ... Clarke has concocted a thoroughly enchanting story of the early 19th century when Gilbert Norrell tried to bring 'practical magic' back to England ... In Clarke's wry, slightly arch tone, they provide faux bibliographic references and fill out England's magical history with myths and legends of the Raven King, who once ruled both human and faerie kingdoms ... Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully odd character in what's practically an encyclopedia of wonderfully odd characters ... Either by instinct or design, Clarke drops supernatural elements into the plot slowly and sparingly, luring fantasy readers along, while acclimating skittish newcomers to this genre gradually ... Move over, little Harry. It's time for some real magic.
The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver
RaveThe Washington PostKingsolver neatly weaves this quiet, watchful man through tumultuous events that rocked two countries, and one of the most impressive feats of The Lacuna is how convincingly she tracks his developing voice, from when he's a sensitive teenager in 1929 until he becomes a national celebrity in the early 1950s … A ‘permanent foreigner,’ not at home in the United States or Mexico and aware that his budding homosexuality must not be expressed, young Shepherd quickly develops an outsider's detached perspective, tinged with loneliness. He has a sharp eye for the beauty of Mexico, its lush tropics and its colorful towns, and Kingsolver convincingly positions him near some of the era's larger-than-life figure.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor[March] promised to write to his beloved Marmee every day, but he admits privately in the opening chapter, ‘I never promised I would write the truth.’ So begins a double helix of entwined narratives – cheery letters to his little women about the noble fight against slavery and searing descriptions for us of the ghastly defeats of war … What becomes increasingly fascinating in this novel is the complicated nature of idealism in the real world and the way that stress twists March's conscience and warps his once pure relationship with the woman he loves. Again and again, March does everything possible to save others but, failing that, can only berate himself for the shame of surviving … In this highly sympathetic portrayal, Brooks nonetheless suggests that there's a narcissistic quality to the drive for perfection that can lead a man to ignore the common but no less pressing needs of those who depend on him.
PositiveThe Washington PostInto this pungent historical setting wafts Miller with a grave story about a man charged with emptying the cemetery and tearing down the church. It’s Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in reverse. Miller’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is a work of fiction, but the 1785 country Miller describes is redolent of real life … Jean-Baptiste is an endearing fellow, serious and earnest, torn between his ambitions and his good nature. He’s so committed to rational self-improvement that every night in bed he recites a little godless affirmation about his devotion to reason. He prides himself ‘on possessing a trained and shadowless mind,’ but just wait till the miasma of the graveyard begins to work on him. Not exactly a country bumpkin, he’s still dazzled by Paris. The early scenes of him stumbling around the city — trying to buy the right suit, trying to hold his liquor — are delightful.
True History of the Kelly GangPeter Carey
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorWith this remarkable novel, Carey has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth. If the world thinks of America through the voice of Huck Finn, from now on they'll think of Australia through the testimony of Ned Kelly … Ned's good nature isn't enough to spare him from the assaults of English injustice. At school, he endures a barrage of dispiriting prejudice. The police harass his family relentlessly. ‘All my life all I wanted were a home,’ he sighs, but the authorities are determined to catch his relations stealing or lying or fighting or drinking – anything to put one of them away in the ‘gaol’ and encourage the remaining clan to move out … In this bracing narrative, Carey has given Kelly back his tongue with a style that rips like a falling tree. The Australia-born author is something of a genius in these acts of literary ventriloquism.
The Great FireShirley Hazzard
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorAdd Shirley Hazzard's new novel to the shelf of haunting post-war stories. The Great Fire smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when the ashes of that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke estranged survivors … Her story comes into focus two years after the destruction of Hiroshima. The war is over, but the peace is hardly satisfying, leaving a world grimy, lame, and troubled by rumors of resuming conflict … Hazzard writes with an extraordinary command of geography and time, moving around the world to gather fleeting but arresting impressions of fascism in Italy, battle in Germany, and defeat in Japan – all the shattering chaos that through a million permutations has brought Leith into the company of these two ethereal siblings.
The Finkler QuestionHoward Jacobson
PositiveThe Washington PostAlthough there is a plot, The Finkler Question is really a series of tragicomic meditations on one of humanity's most tenacious expressions of malice, which I realize sounds about as much fun as sitting shiva, but Jacobson's unpredictable wit is more likely to clobber you than his pathos … No other book has given me such a clear sense of the benevolent disguises that anti-Jewish sentiments can wear. And no one wears them more attractively than Julian Treslove, the handsome, middle-aged gentile at the center of The Finkler Question … Even while we're trying to disentangle what's so disturbing about Julian's special regard for Jews, the book pursues (and belabors) another line of comedy, this one about self-loathing Jews...Jacobson has stirred this pot before (and Philip Roth stirred it before him), but the novel's real depth develops slowly beneath the satire, as anti-Semitic attacks begin to filter into the story from around London and the world.
How to Be BothAli Smith
RaveThe Washington PostThe two novellas make frequent references to each other, but how you interpret those references will depend on whether they’re looking forward or backward...As one character says, it’s a lesson in ‘how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it’ … It’s a fascinating bricolage of history and speculation enriched with Francescho’s audacious patter, often comically incongruous with the Renaissance. Freely mixing genders and pigments, the young artist distinguishes herself early as a magician with paints — and she knows it … This sounds like a novel freighted with postmodern gimmicks, but Smith knows how to be both fantastically complex and incredibly touching. Just as Francescho’s story is laced with insights about the nature and power of painting, George’s story offers its own tender exploration of the baffling and clarifying power of grief.
The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan
RaveThe Washington PostThe story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. He loved a woman once, but tragedy intervened, and since then each new award and commendation only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent … For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him. But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind … The novel doesn’t exonerate these war criminals, but it forces us to admit that history conspired to place them in a situation where cruelty would thrive, where the natural responses of human kindness and sympathy were short-circuited.
Vernon God LittleDBC Pierre
PanChristian Science MonitorBroad as this comedy is, Pierre takes his toughest shots at American media. Even before the police descend, ‘Lally’ Ledesma, a CNN reporter, is already lurking in the yard, greasing his way into Vernon's confidence, seducing his mother, and flattering her chubby friends. He's a fount of journalistic clichés and faux sympathy … Vernon God Little ultimately descends to the same simplistic level it rails against in American culture. Psychologists, religious leaders, law enforcement officers, educators, and parents have sweat blood trying to fathom the dark forces that motivate these rare but terrifying acts of school violence. But here, we learn that it's all perfectly simple: The murderer was publicly humiliated as the victim of a gay porn ring. Ah hah! This is the sort of psychological depth we might expect from one of Vern's favorite made-for-TV-movies.
The Sisters BrothersPatrick deWitt
RaveThe Washington PostAt first, nothing the brothers do or encounter is particularly unusual for this time and place: starving children in the woods, men driven insane by solitude, noisy whorehouses and dirty saloons … It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair … DeWitt catches Eli’s patter just right, the odd formality and naked candor of a man who’s tired of killing, who longs for ‘a reliable companion.’
The PassageJustin Cronin
RaveThe Washington PostThe Passage, the first volume of a planned trilogy, doesn't have any interest in pursuing ol' Count Dracula; it's all about stitching together the still-beating scraps of classic horror and science fiction, techno thrillers and apocalyptic terror. Although a clairvoyant nun plays a crucial role, Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework … Cronin proves himself just as skillful with the dystopic future as he is with the techno-thriller that opens The Passage. This second section sinks deep into the exotic customs of these beleaguered survivors. We meet a vibrant cast of citizen warriors, who have to ask themselves each day if it's worth fighting against the dying of the light.
Great HouseNicole Krauss
PanThe Washington PostFour main narrators, thousands of miles apart, deliver somber testimonies of their lives and their interactions with this errant piece of furniture. How are these narrators related? Where did the desk come from, and what are its ‘hidden meanings’?…The dispiriting punch line to this complicated novel is that these mysteries are the least interesting thing about it. The desk turns out to be rather incidental, and the obscure relationships among some of these characters are merely accidental. The riddles that soak up so much attention are distractions from the moving stories that these disparate narrators have to tell … Despite these several narrators and their widely differing stories, a kind of tonal monotony lies across the novel, which is devoid of the charming humor that leavened The History of Love. Great House remains unrelentingly serious, even dreary in its portrayal of ‘extreme solitude’ coalescing into remorse.
Major Pettigrew's Last StandHelen Simonson
RaveThe Washington PostThis thoroughly charming novel wraps Old World sensibility around a story of multicultural conflict involving two widowed people who assume they're done with love. The result is a smart romantic comedy about decency and good manners in a world threatened by men's hair gel, herbal tea and latent racism … The gentle, reticent affection that develops between these two older people from different worlds is immensely appealing. They continue to call each other ‘Major Pettigrew’ and ‘Mrs. Ali,’ and for most of the novel their simmering passion leads them into nothing more unseemly than reading Keats together, but even that familiarity rubs up against the prejudices of local busybodies. For all the pride Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali take in being independently minded, they share a deep regard for decorum and respectability that's not easily assuaged.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetDavid Mitchell
RaveThe Washington PostYes, the novelist who's been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale. It's not too early to suggest that Mitchell can triumph in any genre he chooses … Mitchell is working within a literary tradition stained by Western slurs about the inscrutable ways of orientals, their seductive mysticism and occult sensuality, but he represents and deconstructs those racist stereotypes with a shipload of fascinating domestic and imported characters … Even as the forces of evil ramp up, this remains a resolutely thoughtful novel about a country wrenched into the modern age. Carefully controlling all contact with the West, Japan reveres its official translators, its only windows on the world. And so language serves as Mitchell's central subject throughout The Thousand Autumns.
The Plot Against AmericaPhilip Roth
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorClearly Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces, moved by simple slogans, and cowed by ominous warnings about threats to our security. The result is a cautionary story in the tradition of The Handmaid's Tale, a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty … In a voice that blends the tones of the author's nostalgia with the boy's innocence, Phil describes the national crisis through its effect on his own family. It's a narrative structure fraught with risks, particularly the danger of making this 7-year-old boy look cloying or inappropriately sophisticated, but Roth keeps his bifocal vision in perfect focus.
The Bone ClocksDavid Mitchell
MixedThe Washington PostThis new novel offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation, stretching around the world from the Margaret Thatcher era of the 1980s to the Endarkenment of 2043 … We climb this steep mountain expecting that we will be rewarded with the wizardry of The Night Circus, The Magicians or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — but somehow, as The Bone Clocks winds up for its long-anticipated climax, Mitchell abandons his exploration of character, sexuality, class and politics for an old warlock’s sack of cliches. In the words of one of the book’s courageous, jargon-laden soldiers, the ‘psychovoltage is low.’
The DovekeepersAlice Hoffman
MixedThe Washington PostThe Dovekeepers is an enormously ambitious, multi-part story, richly decorated with the details of life 2,000 years ago. What’s more, as Anita Diamant showed so popularly with The Red Tent, the world of ancient Judaism provides fertile ground for exploring the challenges of women’s lives, and, fortunately, this time Hoffman treats her favorite issues without throwing up much of the fairy dust that too often clogs her work…The result is a high-minded feminist story of unassailable seriousness … Many of the incidents these women relate — family conflicts, cruel assaults, romantic trysts, difficult births, jealous conflicts, magical incantations — are dramatic and engaging, but their sheer number eventually feels relentless, a tiresome delay of the bloodbath we know is coming.
We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
PositiveThe Washington PostWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves isn’t just about an unusual childhood experiment; it’s about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief. Clearly, something traumatic happened when Rosemary was 5, something that turned her from a loquacious little girl into a quiet young woman. But unearthing the details of that event means digging in a mental landscape strewn with psychological land mines … Although there’s little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom — relatives included.
Parrot & Olivier in AmericaPeter Carey
MixedThe Washington PostTocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous Democracy in America and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces … Parrot & Olivier starts poorly, particularly for a novel by Peter Carey, who usually sells his work hard in the opening chapters. We don't even reach America for well over 100 pages, and while the section on Parrot's childhood in England as a printer's devil contains the book's most inflammable scenes, Olivier's early, whiny section in France is tedious...There are engaging, funny scenes throughout this picaresque tale, but the travelogue grows rickety and stalls too often.
Flight BehaviorBarbara Kingsolver
MixedThe Washington PostThe book’s success stems from Kingsolver’s willingness to stay focused on a conflicted young woman and her faltering marriage, while a strange symptom of the degraded environment overwhelms her remote Tennessee town … Flight Behavior is never dull, but the energy leaks out of the story, which sometimes seems allergic to its own drama. And for a heroine reputed to have a wandering eye, Dellarobia has a remarkably low libido. This may be the saintliest novel ever predicated on the persistent temptation of adultery … Kingsolver has written one of the more thoughtful novels about the scientific, financial and psychological intricacies of climate change. And her ability to put these silent, breathtakingly beautiful butterflies at the center of this calamitous and noisy debate is nothing short of brilliant.
RaveThe Washington PostCanada may strike recent fans as a departure, but it’s actually a return to the plains of his first celebrated story collection, Rock Springs … Ford can be sympathetic and yet clear-eyed about the limits of these poor, mismatched people. His delineation of their characters is insistent without seeming relentless, moving further and further into the conflicted desires and misimpressions that motivate them … Always a careful craftsman, Ford has polished the plainspoken lines of Canada to an arresting sheen. He’s working somewhere between Marilynne Robinson (without the theology) and Cormac McCarthy (without the gore). The wisdom he offers throughout these pages can be heard in the hushed silence that follows this harrowing tale.
A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaAnthony Marra
RaveThe Washington PostA Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists...these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history … On one level, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together.
We Are WaterWally Lamb
PanThe Washington PostThe story comes to us as a series of soliloquies delivered — chapter by chapter — by the distressed members of the Oh family. The patriarch is Orion Oh, an affable psychologist descended from a Chinese grandfather with ‘inscrutable eyes.’ Orion has endured a rough year: He’s been forced into early retirement by a sexual harassment claim, and his wife has left him for a woman … Eventually, we hear soliloquies from the Ohs’ three unhappy adult children, a couple of neighbors and even Annie’s old sexual abuser. Together they present an exhaustive inventory of woe … The problem with We Are Water, though, isn’t an excess of trauma, it’s a dearth of immediacy and subtlety. The present-day action of the novel is overwhelmed by recollections.
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.
The Poisonwood BibleBarbara Kingsolver
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorDespite its uneven quality, The Poisonwood Bible is a vessel that holds our attention and some powerful ideas ...story rotates through a series of monologues by the wife and four daughters of a ferocious Baptist preacher from Bethlehem, Ga., who's determined to bring his version of salvation to the incendiary Congo in 1960 ... The daughters react in strikingly different ways, but Kingsolver's success at portraying them is uneven ... It's weakest when the family splits apart and the characters become mouthpieces for not particularly fresh statements about the abuses of colonialism ...this exciting story will make for particularly good discussion.
The TwelveJustin Cronin
PanThe Washington PostNow, finally, comes the long-awaited second volume, and as much as it pains me to say it, The Twelve bites … What’s truly bizarre is that a novel so burdened with exposition manages to provide so little necessary explanation. Don’t even think about starting this volume if you haven’t committed the first one to memory … Again and again, suspense is drained away by the book’s choppy structure, as though the dastardly government virus that caused vampirism also caused attention deficit disorder. When the various parts of this ramshackle plot finally came together, I couldn’t tell if I were truly grateful or just suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
MixedThe Washington PostThe novel opens in 2000 in the final, agonizing months of Beard's fifth marriage, with a section that brandishes everything that makes McEwan such a terrific writer. His satire snaps wittily, his interweaving of scientific research and romantic intrigue is startlingly clever, and his psychological insights feel both genuine and comic. For the first time in Beard's life, he's desperate to win back an estranged wife, but this one won't have it … But the novel's fortunes sag from this point forward. Solar remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward.
Moving KingsJoshua Cohen
RaveThe Washington PostGranta recently named Cohen one of the best young American novelists, and his new book, Moving Kings, is a svelte comic triumph that concentrates his genius ... The clash of expectations between a rough American businessman and an Israeli innocent abroad provides the basis for some smart comedy, and Cohen is particular adept with moments of silly absurdity ... As subtly as water seeps into sand, the comedy drains from this story, and we’re left in the stark moral desert where Yoav is stranded.
Mrs. FletcherTom Perrotta
PanThe Washington PostPerrotta is an affectionate comic writer, but to his own detriment, he has mastered the art of suburban titillation — and he rests on it. Although lusty subjects thrum through this novel, they’re often blanched. The effect can feel like reading the essays of Camille Paglia printed on slices of Wonder Bread ... In the libidinous groves of academe, Brendan finds his romantic thrusts blunted by women more sophisticated, enlightened and aggressive than his pliant high school sweetheart. And yet his story never develops the psychological depth or satiric edge to make these scenes sufficiently moving, witty or arresting ... Without a more discerning narrative voice and a greater willingness to explore the complexity of desire, there’s nothing to disturb the comfortable patter of Mrs. Fletcher. The novel hovers awkwardly between farce and psychological realism. Its neat checklist of sexual experiences — Lesbians! MILFs! Three-ways! — starts to feel like a weird session of Wednesday night bingo.
Who Is Rich?Matthew Klam
RaveThe Washington PostThis is an irresistible comic novel that pumps blood back into the anemic tales of middle-aged white guys. Klam may be working in a well-established tradition, but he’s sexier than Richard Russo and more fun than John Updike, whose Protestant angst was always trying to transubstantiate some man’s horniness into a spiritual crisis ... In paragraphs that flow like conversation with a witty, troubled friend, Klam captures Rich’s squirrelly consciousness, swinging from lust to despair, turning his comic eye on others and then on himself ... But for all its wise gender comedy, Who Is Rich is also a brilliant rumination on the trap of cannibalizing one’s life for art.
Young Jane YoungGabrielle Zevin
RaveThe Washington PostHer novel comes to us in five distinct parts, each focusing on a different woman affected by Avivagate. That structure rotates the scandal in curious ways, and it also shows off just what a clever ventriloquist Zevin is ... The most radical chapter is constructed as a choose-your-own-adventure story. This sort of super-duper-cleverness can start to feel like you’re being force-fed eight pounds of cotton candy, which makes Zevin’s success all the more impressive. Her narration in the second person insists that we stop peering down at this young woman and begin, instead, to imagine ourselves as her.
The LocalsJonathan Dee
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Locals feels attuned to the broader currents of our culture, particularly the renewed tension between competing ideals of community and self-reliance ... there are lots of unhappy characters, all elegantly choreographed in a dance of discontent ... With this little town, this idyllic-looking version of America, Dee has constructed a world — harrowing but instructive — where no one feels content ... You don’t have to be a Pollyanna to believe that there is such a force as love in the world, and graciousness and selflessness, too. But those qualities are missing in these characters, as though they were suffering some kind of moral vitamin deficiency. Hardly any of these people are allowed even a moment of inspiration or elevation ... Amid the heat of today’s vicious political climate, The Locals is a smoke alarm. Listen up.
All the Dirty PartsDaniel Handler
PanThe Washington PostNow that the entire catalogue of pornography is accessible on every cellphone and laptop, Handler’s novel isn’t nearly filthy enough. And — major buzzkill — it’s an ironically pious tale ... All his adventures — straight, gay and solitary — are conveyed in the novel’s spindly structure, not so much impressionistic as elliptical. With most of the narrative flesh stripped away, we’re left with just snippets and moments, dialogue and thought freely mixed and undifferentiated ... That his Lotharion ways eventually bring him low is not so surprising — after all, even creeps can get their hearts broken. But what’s strange is that Cole enjoys so little pleasure along the way. Where’s the thrill of sexual passion? The earth-moving excitement? The mind-blowing arousal? For some reason, despite all the sexual mechanics, All the Dirty Parts includes none of the good parts. Handler says he hates all the finger-wagging moralism in most YA lit, but if you’re a certain kind of uptight parent, this may be just the depressing and joyless novel you want your horny son to read. Good luck with that.
LessAndrew Sean Greer
RaveThe Washington Post...[a] thoroughly delightful novel ... Greer is an exceptionally lovely writer, capable of mingling humor with sharp poignancy ... Greer is brilliantly funny about the awkwardness that awaits a traveling writer of less repute ... Whether he’s pining after an old lover or creeping along a ledge four flights up, hoping to climb through the window of his locked apartment, this is the comedy of disappointment distilled to a sweet elixir. Greer’s narration, so elegantly laced with wit, cradles the story of a man who loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessArundhati Roy
RaveThe Washington PostTruly, this is a remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains. It will not convert Roy’s political enemies, but it will surely blast past them. Here are sentences that feel athletic enough to sprint on for pages, feinting in different directions at once, dropping disparate allusions, tossing off witty asides, refracting competing ironies. This is writing that swirls so hypnotically that it doesn’t feel like words on paper so much as ink in water. Every paragraph dares you to keep up, forcing you finally to stop asking questions, to stop grasping for chronology and just trust her ... [it] will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion.
The Essex SerpentSarah Perry
RaveThe Washington Post... irresistible ... an absorbing story told in a style that’s antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious. The narrative sometimes shifts into an interchange of intimate letters, a bittersweet reminder of what we gave up to send each other emoji and self-destructing snapshots. Raised on the classics and the Bible, Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us ... By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature 'from the illuminated margins of a manuscript': friendship.
The Snow ChildEowyn Ivey
PositiveThe Washington PostA childless couple forms a girl from snow and, in answer to their longing, she comes to life. That’s essentially what happens in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, but the author has transported the story to her native Alaska and fleshed it out with an endearing set of characters ... Whether she really exists or not, Faina, as they eventually call her, will capture your imagination just as she captures Jack and Mabel’s...[Faina is] another in the growing crowd of fiercely independent girls we’ve seen in recent fiction including Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones ... Although Ivey teases us with surreal elements, they remain an elusive scent in these pages, which are grounded in the deadly but gorgeous Alaskan landscape ... Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy. That isn’t a feeling literary fiction seems to have much use for, but Ivey conveys surprising moments of happiness with such heartfelt conviction.
New BoyTracy Chevalier
PositiveThe Washington PostAt first, that setting might sound infantile for the adult machinations of Shakespeare’s play, but give it a moment, and the anachronisms of this mash-up start to feel oddly appropriate. In Chevalier’s handling, the insidious manipulations of Othello translate smoothly to the dynamics of a sixth-grade playground, with all its skinned-knee passions and hopscotch rules ... How Chevalier renders Iago’s scheme into the terms of a modern-day playground provides some wicked delight. She’s immensely inventive about it all ... Of course, Othello works better, but that’s inevitable. Shakespeare’s highly stylized language accommodates equally artificial actions on the stage, while that harmony is thrown out of whack in Chevalier’s novel. Her realistic prose and naturalistic characters eventually clash with the melodrama that overtakes the plot. But by that time, the story of O has reached such a disturbing pitch that you can’t do anything but stand stock still in the sand and watch this poor boy’s life crash.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'”
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PanThe Washington PostAlthough Sleeping Beauties offers glimpses of trouble around the world — riots in Washington, a downed jet, etc. — the story stays focused on Dooling, particularly the women’s penitentiary where prisoners are quickly succumbing to the Aurora Flu. But before these inmates go gentle into that gooey night, we get to know several of them: lonely souls, abused girlfriends, unstable killers with hearts of gold. It’s a very special edition of 'Orange Is the New Black Death' ... The story is flecked with the gossamer wings of fairy tales that fall awkwardly in this contemporary setting. More than 70 characters rage and snore through these pages. They’re all listed at the front of the book, a feature that has the unintentional effect of making the cast feel even more bewildering ... Stephen King, the author of more than 50 best-selling novels, and Owen, whose debut novel, Double Feature appeared in 2013, can be wonderful writers, but this yawning collaboration doesn’t bring out the best in either of them. The pacing in the first 300 pages is deadly — and not in a good way.
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.
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 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.
The Night CircusErin Morgenstern
PositiveThe Washington PostBut even if you’re not ready for clown shoes, you’ll enjoy escaping into Erin Morgenstern’s enchanting first novel, The Night Circus ... more than merely re-creating the Greatest Show on Earth, Morgenstern has spun an extravaganza that makes P.T. Barnum look smaller than Tom Thumb ... Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell ... In ominous, atmospheric chapters of just a few pages each, Morgenstern moves quickly through the children’s supernatural preparation ...In fact, there’s probably too much going on here, even for a three-ring circus, and so many colorful characters that the protagonists can seem a bit underdeveloped ...Indeed, one of the most enthralling aspects of this novel is watching two lovers unfettered by the laws of nature or physics cast secret tokens of their affection to each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'”
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.
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.
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.’
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.
The SonPhilipp Meyer
RaveThe Washington PostWhat a range Meyer has: He can disembowel a living soldier with just as much color and precision as when he slights a preppy debutante at a sleepover. He shows us Texas evolving from cattle to oil, from hardscrabble grassland to unimaginable opulence … I could no more convey the scope of The Son than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Buddha in the AtticJulie Otsuka
MixedThe Washington PostNo story in the conventional sense ever develops, and no individuals emerge for more than a paragraph...Each chapter focuses on some general aspect of Japanese immigrant life — sex, employment, children — and the great variety of their experiences is blended, often sentence by sentence … The very best sections of the novel reminded me of the poetic catalogues in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but periodically the rhythm turns flat and the lists betray a kind of pedestrian pattern … As the internment demanded by Executive Order 9066 approaches, the book’s communal voice again becomes more appropriate to the paranoia and confusion these women feel. Their voices mingle, and isolated images, so precisely captured by Otsuka, deliver an explosion far beyond their size. And yet I’m troubled by the friction between this novel’s theme and its style.
The Cat's Table
RaveThe Washington PostIt’s a charming mixture of eccentricity, serendipity and impish fun. ‘Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life,’ the narrator admits, but Ondaatje folds all the boys’ escapades into the human comedy … The tone grows darker, the drama more treacherous. Wisps of rumor that Michael and his friends have breathlessly collected erupt in a climax that outstrips their childish fantasies. How frighteningly the pieces of this puzzle snap into place, and we’re left staring just as dumbstruck as young Michael at a melodramatic tableau … On the powerful waters of Ondaatje’s prose, The Cat’s Table finally arrives at a deeper destination than we could have anticipated when the voyage began.
Zone OneColson Whitehead
RaveThe Washington Post...should have known that Whitehead, the 41-year-old MacArthur Foundation 'genius,' wouldn’t do the zombie walk in lock step with George Romero, but what’s most surprising about Zone One is how subtly he reanimates those old body parts for a post-9/11 world ... Readers who wouldn’t ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry ... That grim humor slithers through most of this novel, along with touches of Whitehead’s topical satire... Mark’s soul-weariness infects the tone and pace of the novel, too, which offers more eulogy than suspense ... Everything comes to life in this perfectly paced, horrific, 40-page finale shot through with grim comedy and desolate wisdom about the modern age in all its poisonous, contaminating rage.
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.
RaveThe Washington PostAlderman has written our era’s Handmaid’s Tale, and, like Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Power is one of those essential feminist works that terrifies and illuminates, enrages and encourages ... Alderman’s greatest feat is keeping this premise from settling toward anything obvious as she considers how the world would adjust if women held the balance of energy and could discharge it at will ... That globe-spanning ambition could easily have dissipated the novel’s focus, but Alderman keeps her story grounded in the lives of four characters who are usually sympathetic, sometimes reprehensible ... In her acknowledgments, Alderman thanks Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin — possibly the most brilliant triumvirate of grandmothers any novel has ever had. That lineage shows in this endlessly surprising and provocative story that deconstructs not just the obvious expressions of sexism but the internal ribs of power that we have tolerated, honored and romanticized for centuries.
PositiveThe Washington PostAll the harbor details — from the dangerous mechanics of underwater work to the irritating chauvinism of Navy officers — feel dutifully researched. The whole novel, in fact, boasts its tweedy historical accuracy...But there’s something predetermined about this story of a spunky young woman breaking through gender barriers in wartime. Far more engaging are the shadowy actions swirling around Anna. Her crafty father kept the family fed and clothed through the Depression by working for a racketeer named Dexter Styles ... Manhattan Beach may not offer the brilliant variety of forms found in Goon Squad, but Egan is still blending a jazzy range of tones in these chapters, from Tennessee Williams’s apartment-trapped despair to Herman Melville’s adventures at sea ... All these strong currents — from noir thriller to family drama to wartime adventure — eventually return to the private moment that opens Manhattan Beach. If that ending is surprisingly hopeful, it’s never false, and it dares to satisfy us in a way that stories of an earlier age used to.
The Burning GirlClaire Messud
MixedThe Washington PostIf you remember the fevered fury of The Woman Upstairs, you’ll be surprised by the muted, reflective voice of The Burning Girl. Julia views her adolescence through a scrim of remorse. It’s also a shock to learn that she’s supposedly a junior in high school; she sounds 35. The plot, despite its thriller gloss, seems captured in amber, cloudy and still. Julia keeps turning over events, trying to comprehend the end of her 'defining friendship,' the failure of her own compassion. 'Everybody wanted a story,' Julia says, 'a story with an arc, with motives and a climax and a resolution.' If The Burning Girl demonstrates anything, it’s that the sorrows of adolescence don’t fit that familiar archetype.
PanThe Washington PostDan Brown is back with another thriller so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff ... All the worn-out elements of those earlier books are dragged out once again for Brown to hyperventilate over like some grifter trying to fence fake antiques ... Brown may not have discovered a secret that threatens humanity’s faith, but he has successfully located every cliche in the world. Some sentences are constructed entirely of hand-me-down phrases ... All right — I get it — this is cotton candy spun into print, but why then must every reference, no matter how pedestrian, be explained in a Wikipedia monotone that Siri would pity? ... All this might be worth enduring if the story’s infinitely hyped revelations didn’t finally show up at the end of a trail of blood sounding like an old TED Talk. Kirsch’s posthumous answers to the big questions — Where did we come from? Where are we going? — will surprise no one technologically savvy enough to operate a cellphone. Darwinians, fundamentalists, atheists and believers: Pray that this cup pass from you.
Sing Unburied SingJesmyn Ward
RaveThe Washington PostWard employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism ... These are people 'pulling all the weight of history,' and Ward represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title. Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Sanders’s recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a more direct antecedent ... If Sing, Unburied, Sing lacks the singular hypnotic power of Salvage the Bones, that’s only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature. The simile-drenched lines that sometimes overwhelmed Ward’s previous novel have been brought under the control here of more plausible voices. And the plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, 'The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.
The Yellow BirdsKevin Powers
MixedThe Washington PostThe Yellow Birds reads like a collection of 11 linked short stories. Except for one that takes place in Germany, they move back and forth between Iraq in the fall of 2004 and the United States from 2003 to 2009. The narrator is John Bartle, a pensive, guilt-ridden vet recalling his friendship with another young soldier he calls Murph … The first chapter demonstrates what Powers can do so well, and anthology editors should be fighting over the rights to excerpt it from the novel...Throughout The Yellow Birds, amid the gore and the terror and the boredom, you can hear notes of Powers’s work as a poet … Frankly, the parts of The Yellow Bird are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision. Murph risks being a hick cliche, and moments of recycled Hemingway sound glib.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RaveThe Washington PostWhile the story is sometimes terrifying, Donoghue consistently de-emphasizes Old Nick, a strategy that reflects Jack's limited perspective but also demonstrates that she has no intention of trafficking in the sexual charge of abduction thrillers. Instead, the novel stays focused on Jack's elemental pleasures and unsettling questions … For such a peculiar, stripped-down tale, it's fantastically evocative … Not too cute, not too weirdly precocious, not a fey mouthpiece for the author's profundities, Jack expresses a poignant mixture of wisdom, love and naivete that will make you ache to save him -- whatever that would mean.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PanThe Washington PostThose who enter this dark forest are fated to wander through a thicket of esoteric reflections on Jewish mysticism, Israel and creation. Krauss can sometimes sound like a modern-day Ralph Waldo Emerson, so long as you don’t push too hard on her orphic pronouncements...Indeed, much of this material feels more essayistic than novelistic, except that an essay is meant to deliver us to greater understanding of something besides the author’s pathos. Eventually, a subplot involving Franz Kafka scurries into the story and offers a bit of cerebral intrigue — along with Krauss’s illuminating commentary on Kafka’s life and work. But that still leaves a lot of room for Nicole to moan about imposing form on the formlessness of narrative. Such writerly consternation may send students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop into fits of ecstasy, but most readers will be more moved by Nicole’s reflections on the loss of love, on that indeterminate moment when romance evaporates ... Nothing in these pages discourages the assumption that Krauss is revealing her own laments about the failure of their marriage, which makes Forest Dark feel uncomfortably passive aggressive: an act of relationship revenge with deniability built into its fictive frame.
The Golden HouseSalman Rushdie
PanThe Washington PostSpeaking of Trump’s unlikely election, Rushdie recently told an interviewer, 'This thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel,' but that sounds like fake news. In any event, Trump’s election is not very good for this novel, in which Rushdie pokes through the story whenever he wants to pop off about America’s poisonous political culture ... The story of Nero and his golden house is told by a handsome young neighbor named René, a far more involved and, alas, far less poetic narrator than Nick Carraway...Everything about this family spreading its influence and then crashing like the House of Usher comes to us in René’s confidential but bland voice ... Perhaps it wouldn’t feel so arduous to plod through this pile of worn phrases if the plot moved more quickly. There are elements of intrigue, including a bizarre sexual bargain on which the story hinges, but the most exciting revelation erupts late in the book, long after the mystery of Nero’s origins has cooled. Then, finally, we have to endure René nattering on about the loss of innocence, a theme we can smell like mildew as soon as we enter this airless novel.
RaveThe Washington Post[Doyle] is the Irish master of crumpled hope — and no country provides stiffer competition in that category. His new novel offers a deceptively languid plot laced with menace. Paced more like a short story than a novel, Smile creates contradictory feelings of poignant stagnation and accelerating descent ... This is a performance few writers could carry off: a novel constructed entirely from bar stool chatter and scraps of memory. But you can’t turn away. It’s like watching a building collapse in slow motion ... Doyle draws adolescence with such crisp empathy and humor that Victor’s memories feel as real as photos of your own childhood. His Catholic schooling under the brothers is charged with excitement and the possibility of violence ... as the novel reaches its crescendo, Doyle shatters the natural structure of his narrative and manages to disorient us despite our weary confidence that we know the dimensions of the molestation tale. It’s a daring move, an attempt to trace the penumbra of abuse across a shattered psyche. For one horrible moment, we get a sense of the victim’s unspeakable confusion, the terror that diverts a life and wrecks a mind.