Sam SacksSam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is a founding editor at Open LettersMonthly. He can be found on Twitter @Sam_Sacks
Hot MilkDeborah Levy
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe effect of Sofia’s breakdown is richly destabilizing and unpredictable, and very much in line with Ms. Levy’s earlier barbed novels ... She has found a niche unpacking the lies and power struggles of families on holiday. She can show you fear in a handful of sand. Yet the novel lacks any semblance of a convincing plot. Ms. Levy advances the story not by creating a dramatic arc but by shuffling through a set of symbols like a fortune-teller turning tarot cards.
Another BrooklynJacqueline Woodson
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...though Another Brooklyn is being billed as her first novel for adults in two decades, it will still speak most powerfully to younger readers. The book communicates a sense of longing and loneliness that will instantly resonate with teenagers of a certain introspective temperament ... Older readers may wish that more irony and complexity shaded these reminiscences. But the purpose of Ms. Woodson’s touching memorialization is to return you to that age when experience cuts deep.
Moving KingsJoshua Cohen
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere are two halves to this novel. The first is a superbly drawn portrait of King, a man raised in a cramped Queens apartment where his parents argued 'in the Yiddish of banged cabinets' who went on to make a fortune at the cost of his soul. Bluff, funny, amoral and likably scrappy—he brings the dented company van to glitzy fundraisers—King seems both archetypal and vividly sui generis. But the book’s second half drops him in order to enact a creaky allegory of Israeli occupation. Yoav and Uri unwittingly reprise their mission in Gaza by helping to dispossess poor evictees ... The idea is that the cycle of violence that afflicts Israel is analogous to the predatory practices of urban capitalism. This is, to put it mildly, a tricky parallel, and Mr. Cohen’s parable-like tale is too sketchy to make it persuasive.
The World of TomorrowBrendan Mathews
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] entertaining if at times exhaustingly madcap tale ... A story this outsized would be incomplete if it only featured the living. Michael was badly wounded by the explosion in Ireland and in his shell-shocked state he is visited by the ghost of the mystic poet William Butler Yeats, who leads him on a quest through Manhattan for a fortune teller who will reveal the directives of the 'spiritus mundi,' 'the universal memory that binds us all.' Reveling in bold twists and fantastic coincidences, Mr. Mathews’s big, expressive debut inhabits a world that’s neither of the past nor the future but wholly of the imagination.
All We Shall KnowDonal Ryan
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a bracingly compact tale of Irish village life whose powerful undercurrents of loneliness and heartache rush along in streams of gorgeous, rippling prose. So fine is this novel, and so purely told, that it establishes Mr. Ryan as the heir apparent to the late, great Irish stylists John McGahern and William Trevor ... There are countless passages that are so sculpted and beautiful that one’s lips begin to shape their words unbidden, the way a song can move a crowd to its rhythm ... With this book Mr. Ryan moves to the head of a brilliant young class.
The Chalk ArtistAllegra Goodman
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Chalk Artist offers antidotes to this apparent technological scourge. Nina and Collin enjoy a highly symbolic stroll in Walden Woods and Nina’s classroom efforts go toward awakening her students to the glories of Emily Dickinson. But though there’s undeniable charm in Ms. Goodman’s celebration of nature and poetry, the novel’s moral binary feels superficial. Characterizing video games as little more than digital opiates leaves Aidan’s coming-of-age story frustratingly underdeveloped ... The immersive, collaborative worlds of his role-playing games, with their elements of questing, violence and sexual ideation, form a powerful backdrop to the shocks of adolescence. A novel that appreciated the complexity of these games would tell a darker but more truthful story about growing up in contemporary America. Instead, Ms. Goodman has written a feel-good fantasy about kicking a bad habit with help from the Belle of Amherst.
Kingdom ConsYuri Herrera, Trans. by Lisa Dillman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis cunning little drama about the line separating art from agitprop is, like the other books, translated with colloquial verve by Lisa Dillman. The Artist’s mission statement could speak for the whole of Mr. Herrera’s daring and memorable project: 'Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?'
Bed-Stuy Is BurningBrian Platzer
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe violent standoff between the mob and those inside the building is riveting, full of cliffhanger chapter endings and surprise twists ... Mr. Platzer deftly swivels among the clashing points of view, and the climax, in which Aaron returns to disperse the crowd with an improvised sermon, is powerfully done. But the scene is vexing as well. To Aaron, the sermon is his wake-up call to return to the rabbinate. But that it casts him in the role of the redeemed hero highlights just how much he and Amelia have dominated a novel whose flashpoint is police violence against African-Americans ... Mr. Platzer is a direct and revealing observer of the habit white Americans have of making themselves the centerpieces of other peoples’ stories. Yet even in this novel, the gentrifiers have still managed to claim the choicest real estate.
What We LoseZinzi Clemmons
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s chapters are succinct, often shorter than a page; the sentences are concise and declarative. Non-fictional material like blog posts and news photos intersperse the story, as if this were an academic study rather than a novel. Thandi, a math tutor, illustrates her emotions with graphs and charts, and when she encounters events that cannot be tamed by logic she explains them to herself using the concept of the asymptote, a line that a curve continuously approaches but cannot reach ... When Thandi finds herself pregnant and unsure of how to proceed, the novel’s intellectual poise has been fatally undermined. This makes for anguished but rewarding reading. It’s bracing to find irruptions of passion shoot through the varnished prose like hairline cracks in porcelain. What We Lose finds itself when it accepts free fall, morphing from an arid work of assertion into a richly volatile study of grief, wonderment and love.
Goodbye, VitaminRachel Khong
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s material for another grueling exploration of loss, and yet, against all odds, Ms. Khong has produced a book that’s whimsical and funny. This is because the author, like her guiding spirit, Lorrie Moore, has a love for the ridiculous in the mundane ... Amid the fear and heartache there’s plenty of absurdity, too, in her father’s erratic behavior, though Ms. Khong never descends to mockery. In the main storyline, the professor’s former students invent a fake class for him to teach, to boost his morale. But the charade doesn’t last long. Mostly this sweet-natured novel is about Ruth’s attempts to come to terms with a past her father can no longer remember while still attending to the quirky, fleeting joys of the present.
The Ministry of Utmost HappinessArundhati Roy
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAspects of this fragmentary novel echo The God of Small Things, a lushly written melodrama that took on caste inequalities and taboo love affairs. Others draw from Ms. Roy’s numerous nonfiction polemics against government abuses and the costs of rapid modernization ... The continuities make it apparent that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t a work of literary re-creation so much as an extension of Ms. Roy’s undertakings as a political dissident. This explains her eagerness to cram her protest novel with as many subjects as possible, at the expense of a coherent story ... The 20-year hiatus from fiction has given Ms. Roy a stockpile of rich stories and characters; synthesizing it all into a powerful novel would seem to have needed more time.
The AnswersCatherine Lacey
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Answers is in part a sparkling satire of our era of big data, sending up the all-too-believable idea that, by optimizing human emotions, technology can be put to use 'solving love.' But the novel is also a poignant spiritual lament, deepening the themes of Ms. Lacey’s excellent debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing ... The specter of holiness haunts Ms. Lacey’s book like a phantom limb. 'I came close to praying a few times,' Mary says during a period of acute suffering, 'but everything felt unanswered enough and I didn’t want another frame for the silence.' These searching, religious dimensions add to the fresh commentary on present-day godheads to make The Answers not just one of the most ingenious novels of 2017 but also one of the most moving.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Maum’s appealing debut, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, followed a husband’s efforts to win back the love of his wife after being caught in an affair. Like that book, Touch uses antic humor to mask its rather stern traditional message about the importance of nuclear families and the magic of baby-making. The author’s conservative streak occasionally dampens her storytelling. The book’s settings, drably confined to conference rooms and the company car, could have used shaking up, and its ending is too easy to forecast. But it’s impressive that Ms. Maum has managed to make a return to old-fashioned family values—and even commonplace acts of physical intimacy—seem daring and subversive.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGiven a smooth and pithy translation by Neil Smith, Beartown shuttles among a wide cast of local zealots, from driven teenage athletes to antacid-popping coaches to mucky-mucks on the club’s board of directors ... The obsession with winning is responsible for the novel’s thrills—in the fashion of underdog sports dramas, the games tend to be decided by last-minute goals—but also for its abrupt and tragic turn. At a drunken house party after a victory, Kevin sexually assaults Maya. The he-said-she-said nature of the crime divides the town, and Mr. Backman charts the struggle many have in elevating loyalties to friends and family over those to the team. There are, in the end, real acts of bravery and sacrifice in this appealing novel, but they mostly take place off the ice.
Lonesome Lies Before UsDon Lee
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Lee plucks familiar chords with a sure hand, glancing on themes of grief, jealousy and second chances ... But what really stamps this book on the heart is Yadin’s vulnerable spiritual journey from loneliness toward something like grace.
So Much BluePercival Everett
RaveThe Wall Street JournalProceeding at a steady, entrancing pace, Mr. Everett pays out the lines of his story until he reaches the twin traumatic secrets at the core of Pace’s personality. Thus So Much Blue potently explores the Faustian bargain by which artists fertilize their guilt and estrangement for the sake of their creations ... So Much Blue is a comparatively accessible work yet still displays his narrative prowess, erudition and sense of enigma. It is, in short, an ideal place to start with this great but neglected novelist.
Inheritance from MotherMinae Mizumura, Trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe 66 chapters are brief, emotionally combustible and, in Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation, liberally strewn with clichés (blood freezes, people stop in their tracks and reach for the stars). There are also fascinating asides about the history of the serial novel in Japan, because Mitsuki believes that these fairy-tale melodramas were responsible for shaping her mother’s acquisitive personality and may have contributed to her own marital unhappiness. So Ms. Mizumura craftily mixes the old with the new, creating a highly readable throwback to popular dime novels that replaces gilt with guilt and romance with real talk.
The Accomplished GuestAnn Beattie
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are busy, gregarious stories, more active and unbuttoned than the so-called Minimalist writing that defined Ms. Beattie’s heyday in the 1980s, but still possessed of her eye for quirky relationships and her sidelong sense of humor.
Modern GodsNick Laird
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalSociety’s darkest impulses are on graphic display in Nick Laird’s novel, which takes on the atrocities committed in the name of religion and politics ... Mr. Laird is alive to the ways that adamant moral certitudes tend toward violence. 'Righteous fury is so easy, can be slipped on like a coat,' he writes. Yet the novel’s real source of discomfort is not its ideas but its prose. Modern Gods opens with a dramatization of the mass shooting in the pub ... Mr. Laird, a poet as well as a novelist, has a gift for language—but I wish he hadn’t made these awful scenes so pretty.
House of NamesColm Tóibín
MixedThe Wall Street JournalA feeling of spectral unreality characterizes House of Names, as if it were all a dark Freudian dream, hazily imagined rather than fully inhabited. Mr. Tóibín has traded out the rage and horror of The Oresteia for ambivalence and disquiet. His adaptation is as finely written as any of his books, but it occupies an artistic nether region, lacking the archetypal power of the ancient dramas and the plausibility of realism.
SpoilsBrian Van Reet
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...original, deftly plotted and incisively intelligent ... Mr. Van Reet occupies these sparring perspectives with impressive balance and dispassion, avoiding the sense of victimhood that often saturates fiction about American soldiers in Iraq. Though the novel offers no pat resolutions, a strange and surprising connection emerges between captive and captors.
Bad Dreams and Other StoriesTessa Hadley
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Hadley seeks out the secrets embedded in the ordinary, and though this collection is more variable than her best work—the 2013 novel-in-stories Clever Girl—it’s filled with odd and glittering nuggets.
Saints for All OccasionsJ. Courtney Sullivan
RaveThe Wall Street JournalBut one such kindred spirit [of Meave Binchy] is J. Courtney Sullivan, whose Irish-American family drama Saints for All Occasions is touched with the same warmth, kindness and gentle wisdom ... A low, steady voice urging faithfulness and forgiveness is audible in Saints for All Occasions as Ms. Sullivan draws her characters together in a moving conclusion. Despite the secrets between them, and despite the colorful South Boston bickering that animates their conversations, the novel eloquently testifies to the durability of the fabric of family.
Anything is PossibleElizabeth Strout
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] spare and sensitive pendant piece [to My Name is Lucy Barton] ... Ms. Strout is hardly a sentimentalist, however. In this wise and accomplished book, pain and healing exist in perpetual dependence, like feuding siblings. 'It made me feel better, it made me feel much less alone,' Patty tells Charlie Macauley after reading Lucy’s memoir. 'Oh no,' he replies. 'No, we’re always alone.'
The Golden LegendNadeem Aslam
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] beautifully imagined novel ... When reduced to summary, The Golden Legend can seem to feature violence in melodramatic excess. Death is meted out by Americans, Hindu nationalists, the Pakistani government and the swelling ranks of Muslim fundamentalists. Yet Mr. Aslam describes it all with otherworldly calmness and simplicity. Some writers have the gift of making the prosaic remarkable; this author makes the unfathomable appear almost ordinary, drawing readers into his multifaceted story and making its brutality more recognizably terrible.
Void StarZachary Mason
PanThe Wall Street JournalAs Mr. Mason spins out an elaborate and highly confusing techno-thriller, he explores a future in which humanity has increasingly subordinated itself to machines it doesn’t understand ... Mr. Mason writes with a mathematical precision that often crystallizes into lines of clean, poetic beauty...But the whole feels recondite and detached, as if it were intended to evoke the 'opaque complexity' of artificial minds. As the story merges the physical world with virtual realms it becomes difficult to grasp just what is going on. One puzzled character sums it all up: 'There’s a pattern but I can’t quite see it.'”
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North KoreaBandi, Trans. by Deborah Smith
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] remarkable collection ... In an unfussy translation by Deborah Smith, their power is in the plain-spoken, almost artless way they convey daily life under an ever-watchful, whimsically cruel regime ... In an unforgettable story about a deadly train-station stampede caused by Kim Il Sung’s entourage, 'Pandemonium,' an old woman marvels at the nonstop acting. Where else, she wonders, are cries of suffering 'wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?' This courageous book offers an important reminder that not all dystopias are invented.
A Line Made By WalkingSara Baume
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Baume’s debut was a strange and wonderful book called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a hapless loner whose world turns on its head after he adopts a one-eyed dog. Frankie is another misanthrope, but she’s more difficult to warm to ... It’s evidence of Ms. Baume’s sizable talent that she still makes Frankie’s quarter-life crisis worth reading. Much of the appeal is in the burnish and confidence of her prose.
CompassMathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Enard fuses recollection and scholarly digression into a swirling, hypnotic stream-of-consciousness narration ... The immediate reward to the novel’s challenges—in addition to the pleasures of Mr. Enard’s intricate sentences in Charlotte Mandell’s deft translation—is the astonishing banquet of learning on display ... [Franz's] warm-blooded humanism transforms what might have been a dull catalog of textual arcana into a moving appeal for the importance of culture ... this sad yet invigorating novel is both a love letter to a vanishing discipline and an elegy.
The Devil and WebsterJean Hanff Korelitz
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a sharp and insightful novel exploring the current explosion of student discontent ... Ms. Korelitz hits on a trenchant observation about the nature of contemporary activism: Its object is not resolution but renown ... The Devil and Webster is very much Naomi Roth’s book. In the midst of the furor, she undergoes a midlife coming-of-age, completing the switch from a person committed to challenging the rules to one whose duty is to enforce them.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyHannah Tinti
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe rapid-fire switching between the story lines gives the book an irresistible velocity that Ms. Tinti sustains to the end, by which point she’s settled the last of Hawley’s old scores. What works less well is the book’s gesturing toward mythology. Ms. Tinti has modeled the flashbacks to Hawley’s gunfights on the 12 labors of Hercules, and though those connections are tenuous ... Ms. Tinti is on surer ground detailing Hawley and Loo’s unusual relationship.
HereticsLeonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] ample feast of a historical novel ... Mr. Padura displays a painter’s eye worthy of his expansive canvas, which includes Dutch burghers in 1647, Jewish refugees escaping Hitler, Cuban baseball fans in the 1950s and disaffected Havana youth of the mid-2000s. This rich prose-panorama proves to be as much a spiritual meditation and a paean to individual freedom as it is a murder mystery and a treasure hunt.
Spaceman of BohemiaJaroslav Kalfa?
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe author skillfully splices a barbed picture of the Czech Republic between Jakub’s misadventures in the cosmos. These include floating free inside the dust cloud and hitching a ride on a clandestine Russian space shuttle. The book suggests that every national hero has a dark side, though you may have to leave Earth to see it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe book is reminiscent of a country diary, with entries that dwell on the narrator’s breakfast routine or her vegetable garden. One chapter is made up of worrywart ruminations on replacing a cracked knob on her outdated stove. But the homely themes hint at submerged fears and yearnings ... Hers is a mind in attentive communion with itself, building baroque and beautiful cloud castles of thought to distract from the storms of the real.
The IdiotElif Batuman
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Idiot is a coming-of-age novel that doesn’t arrive and a love story that goes no further than awkward handshakes ... The title is itself a dry joke, since the novel has only the faintest echoes of Dostoevsky’s classic account of a young man whose goodness is continually mistaken for stupidity. Instead Ms. Batuman adheres to the Karl Ove Knausgaard school of autobiographical realism, scrupulously resisting the temptations of plot development in order to achieve a more authentic effect. She is also notably abstemious. Not only is the book entirely chaste, Selin is possibly the only undergrad in America who doesn’t drink. 'I can’t believe you want to go through this sober,' Ivan tells her during one encounter, speaking for everyone.
Ill WillDan Chaon
RaveThe Wall Street JournalFollowing writers like Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson,Dan Chaon writes in the spooky tradition of suburban gothic. His outstanding Ill Will hinges on unsolved murders over two time periods ... Central to Ill Will is its case study of delusion. Mr. Chaon connects the murder of Dustin’s parents to the satanic-ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s, in which children were induced to testify to events that never happened ... An unreliable narrator can often feel like a cheap trick in the novelist’s playbook, but Mr. Chaon employs it masterfully, integrating unreliability into the book’s very typography ... the power of “Ill Will” is in its atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Its eerily persuasive idea that we can’t trust our own minds left me with a shiver of.
Waking LionsAyelet Gundar-Goshen
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWaking Lions, in a propulsive translation from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, yokes a crime story to thorny ethical issues in ways reminiscent of Donna Tartt and Richard Price. Its motor doesn’t always purr—the sections in the middle unpacking Eitan and Liat’s troubled marriage are laborious. But it’s a rare book that can trouble your conscience while holding you in a fine state of suspense.
Exit WestMohsin Hamid
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn his effort to move from specific current events to shared human experiences, Mr. Hamid straddles the border between the real and the fantastic ... The question that tugs at the start of Exit West is whether it’s supposed to take place in Syria. Not really, it turns out, because while Mr. Hamid borrows from aspects of Syria’s civil war, especially in the clash between militants and government forces, other details depart from recent history entirely, including a dip into outright fantasy: magic doors that open directly from one country into another...The magic doors make sense, conceptually, because they symbolize Mr. Hamid’s vision of a world in which boundaries are permeable and migratory pathways extensive and swarming...But the gimmick sands away the texture of a story that already studiedly blurs its settings and events. By eliding the actual passage between countries—often the most dramatic part of the refugee’s tale—Exit West makes Nadia and Saeed seem like simulations, players in a video game who can instantly jump from one realm to another. A hyper-globalized world that is completely flat produces writing to match ... It’s a stirring, ennobling appeal for compassion. But the richness of fiction is found in fine distinctions rather than broad-stroke generalizations, and the trouble is that Exit West collapses the differences between being an exile from a war-torn Middle Eastern country and splitting up with a loved one into a single, uniform experience of loss. This will assuage the consciences of Mr. Hamid’s Western readers, who can leave the book feeling that they truly empathize with the plight of refugees since they too are migrants. The refugees themselves might be less impressed.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?Kathleen Collins
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDespite the unfinished feel of some of these pieces, which are mostly set in the 1960s, the collection offers a stimulating glimpse at a roller-coaster era for civil rights ... Collins’s writing has much in common with Grace Paley’s wry vignettes of New York intellectuals. Her voice is sharp and sophisticated but leavened by vulnerability and self-deprecation. A sense of fatalism lingers near the surface, but so do the characters’ dreams and desires.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalNK3 moves at a forceful clip, braiding numerous storylines together in short, punchy chapters unti . . . well, I’m not sure what. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is a major frustration, as though Mr. Tolkin decided at the last minute to leave us panting for the next installment in some serial. But the book’s plotting is ultimately less notable than its vision of social disruption, in which techies and underlings turn the tables on the ruling class of celebrities and executives.
Ghachar GhocharVivek Shanbhag
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhat’s most impressive about Ghachar Ghochar—the title is a slang phrase Anita uses when things get all tangled up—is how much intricacy and turmoil gets distilled into its few pages. Mr. Shanbhag, who writes in the South Indian language Kannada and is translated here by Srinath Perur into clean, conversational English, is a master of inference and omission. The dimensions of the gilded cage that trap the family appear gradually, and then suddenly. 'They say the newly rich carry umbrellas to keep moonlight at bay,' the sister’s mother-in-law jealously muses. But there’s a deeper loneliness in this wise and skillful book that no covering can conceal.
The Schooldays of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe good news (if you will) is that the parallels to the Gospels are not so schematic in this novel as in its airless predecessor. Mr. Coetzee gives himself more imaginative space to investigate the tension expressed by the murderer, who, seeking atonement, bemoans that 'the law takes no reckoning of the state of a man’s soul.' Even so, The Schooldays of Jesus is an anemic reading experience. Mr. Coetzee expends little effort in giving the story shape or texture. His world-building is haphazard and his descriptions incurious. About Davíd’s strange dancing, we learn only that it 'consists in gliding from point to point on the stage.' Too much of the novel is a drab receptacle for genuinely intriguing ideas; trapped somewhere inside it is a first-rate volume of essays.
The Dark Flood RisesMargaret Drabble
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...the 20th novel by this invaluable woman of letters, is unfiltered and unsentimental, but also curious and appreciative, for old age, Ms. Drabble writes, is 'a theme for heroism' ... One can spot a late style here in Ms. Drabble’s near total disregard for narrative structure. The Dark Flood Rises isn’t a story so much as a set of vividly detailed snapshots of the routines of aging. The pace, too, can feel oddly impatient ... The virtue of such a busy canvas, however, is the sense of connection that it fosters. Ms. Drabble’s beautiful 2013 novel, The Pure Gold Baby, explored the traditional role the English village had in caring for the mentally ill, and her new novel again takes up the question of collective responsibility. Ms. Drabble’s overarching insight is that no one grows old alone ... Death and accidents are the grim commonplace in these late bonds. Ms. Drabble doesn’t shy from the fact that her characters 'live in the world of obituaries.' But they are a community nonetheless, and one drawn with the perception and understanding of a great novelist with a lifetime of experience behind her.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalInto the phantasmagoria, Mr. Saunders introduces a chorus of dead souls representing all strata of American society, from soldiers to slaveholders to poor farmers. Each is granted a turn to speak, and their monologues contain despairing recollections of the persecutions they suffered as well as hopeless rationalizations for the crimes they committed ... The weakest parts of Lincoln in the Bardo are those that seek to evoke this signal era in American history. Some of the shades speak about racist oppression or the carnage of the Civil War, but such details feel patched in. The novel is too dreamy and philosophical to capture the passions and hatreds that animated these years ... Yet if readers can imagine away the novel’s historical ballast, Lincoln in the Bardo is a moving and heartfelt treatise about grief.
Life After LifeKate Atkinson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalLife After Life is a drama of failures and providential rebirths. It follows the repeating life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 on a small family estate in the English countryside and endowed with the gift (or is it the curse?) of second chances ...the novel advances like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill but progressing a bit further each time before it rolls back down to the start ... One of the pleasures of Life After Life is watching these characters grow and change ...plot twists were a staple of the author's detective novels, but here they are put into service for the most unsatisfying aspect of Life After Life—the attempt to make Ursula's personal revisions change history ... Not only does she bring characters to life with enviable ease, she has an almost offhand knack for vivid scene-setting.
Rush Oh!Shirley Barrett
RaveThe Wall Street Journal“Rush Oh! is an elegiac tale, recounting the dissolution of both the whaling outfit and the Davidson clan. But Mary’s voice is so fresh and Ms. Barrett’s sidewinding story so spry and amusing that readers will think less of endings than of the auspicious start to a novelist’s career.
Margaret the FirstDanielle Dutton
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe loveliest aspect of this novel is its gentle, wondering portrayal of the Cavendish marriage. William, a poet and patron of the arts, encourages his wife’s ambitions even as they bring notoriety upon the household. Grasping that her genius will assure him a measure of posterity, he isn’t even unduly upset when the public credits her with writing his own stage plays. Ms. Dutton sensitively shows how Margaret’s iconoclasm complicates, but ultimately enriches their relationship.
The Association of Small BombsKaran Mahajan
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Mahajan’s writing is acrid and bracing, tightly packed with dissonant imagery. Development-scarred New Delhi appears 'baked in exquisite concrete shapes.' The survivors of the bombing are seen 'climbing over the corpses with the guilty look of burglars.' The sharpest passages examine the terrorist mind-set and the demented rationales for mass murder with such acid-etched clarity that it’s possible to feel the deadly magnetism of the arguments ... The Association of Small Bombs is not the first novel about the aftermath of a terrorist attack, but it is the finest I’ve read at capturing the seduction and force of the murderous, annihilating illogic that increasingly consumes the globe.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally HemingsStephen O'Connor
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt and reduced to nervous stammering. Most of all he’s capable of tremendous self-deception, which deepens as he grows old and attempts to bond with the children he has had with Hemings while at the same time refusing to recognize them publicly.
The SympathizerViet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe Wall Street JournalBlack humor seeps through these pages, as does a deepening sense of despair. In the brutal finale, when the narrator has returned to Vietnam only to be 'rehabilitated' by his supposed comrades, he has been so poisoned by dirty work that he has lost all conviction. Seeing things from two sides has simply meant that he has seen twice as many lies.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere is a lot to synthesize, and Ms. Gyasi doesn’t always make it work. The biggest obstacle in a genealogical novel is the need to constantly explain how the families perpetuates their lines, and the result is that the stories in Homegoing repetitively focus on the hows and whys of marriage and childbirth. You start to feel that the only point to these characters’ lives is their ability to procreate. Yet it’s refreshing to read a novel with a sense of historical imminence. Contemporary American fiction frequently seems to exist in blank isolation from world events. Not so Homegoing, where wars and laws directly shape the characters’ destinies, often across generations.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalGone are all traces of Ms. Proulx’s flowery ornamentation, and in their place we find a prose of directness, clarity, rhythmic power and oaken solidity. Barkskins is a potently imagined, if occasionally meandering, chronicle of mankind’s dealings with the North American forests ... The immense scale of the novel means we view its enormous cast as from a great height. There’s a dispassionate, easy-come-easy-go quality to most of these characters, who are cut down in life as quickly as a stand of white pines: by shipwreck, logging accidents, cholera and even Maori cannibals. Their ephemerality makes Barkskins a national epic without anything like a hero. In Ms. Proulx’s vigorous telling, the great American themes of progress and enterprise are reframed into an account of shortsighted plunder.
The DigJohn Preston
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAll the elements are here for a corking adventure yarn, perhaps in the style of Howard Carter’s account of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, which we see Mrs. Pretty reading. Yet despite the fact that most of the characters are real people, the novel’s interests are psychological rather than factual. Even as marvels are uncovered, an insistent strain of melancholy blows through these pages ... The ambient dread is partly due to the gathering storm of World War II. But the apprehension is also metaphysical, connected to the fact that the archaeologists are not digging for buried treasure so much as disturbing a grave. Mr. Preston delicately portrays the effect the specters of mortality and decay have on each narrator. As it brushes away the soil from the remarkable ship, The Dig stages understated excavations of marriage (both Basil’s and Peggy’s) and parenthood (Mrs. Pretty, who became a mother at 47, fears she won’t live to see her son grown up). Thus Mr. Preston creates an intriguing and ultimately moving concoction, a true-life chronicle that delves into secrets of the heart.
The Heavenly TableDonald Ray Pollack
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a Bosch-like collage of the depraved and the grotesque ... a jauntily amoral, amusingly macabre and somewhat juvenile entertainment—a beach read to enjoy on the shore of a lake of fire.
Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Thien’s writing is pensive and melancholy, with little tonal variation. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, nevertheless, a graceful, intricate novel whose humanity threads through it like a stirring melodic line.
The Tsar of Love and TechnoAnthony Marra
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe painting is a fitting motif for this ingenious book. Mr. Marra depicts Russian history as a palimpsest of horrors, in which the crimes of the past never disappear even as tragic new layers are added.
Inherited DisordersAdam Ehrlich Sachs
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFilial ties, in all their tangled perversity, are the subject of Mr. Sachs’s debut. His brief comic sketches—each a darkly glittering gem of compressed neuroses—illustrate the astounding range of resentments and misunderstandings that exist between fathers and sons.
The Castle Cross the Magnet CarterKia Corthron
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis is a heavily stage-crafted novel and frequently sacrifices believability for polemic—one chapter crams together plots concerning police brutality, abortion and homosexuality. It’s Ms. Corthron’s command of dialogue that keeps things motoring. Complex personalities are revealed through long, absorbing conversations, even in the affecting New York section, in which the courting is done in sign. Binding this impressive novel is a beleaguered concept of justice.
The FortunesPeter Ho Davies
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe episodes vary in quality. The strongest is the first, which imagines the Gold Rush-era arrival of Ling, an orphaned teenager, in California ... In contrast, the short middle chapters read like false starts, albeit flecked with sardonic humor ... This rewarding, unorthodox novel embodies those halting attempts and imperfections.
The WonderEmma Donoghue
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Donoghue, a native of Dublin, is strikingly harsh in her depiction of the Irish; most are caricatured as blindly superstitious bog dwellers. But Anna receives the author’s full sympathies and is a lively, endearing foil to her incredulous nurse ... As in Room, Ms. Donoghue proves a shrewd observer of the parental urge to distort reality to protect children—and themselves.
News of the WorldPaulette Jiles
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA thrilling shootout with a pack of such outlaws—the scene occasions Ms. Jiles’s best writing—seals the bond between Kidd and Johanna. But what stands out amid the gun smoke and the period detail is the moving friendship between a girl with no place to fit in and an old man who has outlived his usefulness. Add them to the list of the Wild West’s great odd couples.
Tenth of DecemberGeorge Saunders
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Saunders's characters cling to hope as tenaciously as ever in his new collection, Tenth of December, set in a kind of Dark Ages middle America defined by Darwinian class striving, simulated bread-and-circus distractions (Mr. Saunders is fascinated by amusement parks and reality television) and the substitution of bureaucracy for ethics … Many of the stories are about average people facing extreme tests of moral or physical courage…[they] powerfully dramatize the author's belief that heroism springs from selflessness and compassion.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Oz has generous sympathy for the overmatched dreamers, yet Judas sets down no fixed answers. Aided by Nicholas de Lange’s lucid translation from the Hebrew, it challenges you to think afresh about stories and histories whose interpretations can seem chiseled in stone. It is a novel that prompts questions and self-questioning. What else can one ask from a book?
Human ActsHan Kang
PanThe Wall Street JournalBecause the reasons for the bodily renunciation in The Vegetarian were enigmatic, the novel had the dark energy of a fairy tale. But there’s no mystery in Human Acts. Here the source of the violence is obvious, and the brutalities are desensitizingly repetitive. There is justice in Ms. Han’s emphasis on dead and mutilated bodies, but there’s very little art. A corpse is an important fact; the life it once contained is the deeper story.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
PositiveHarper'sThe new novel may sound like a high-concept, formally pyrotechnic book, yet Auster’s approach to his material is hardly out of the ordinary — he draws on his own life experience, tweaking details and outcomes as it suits him. The pleasures 4 3 2 1 offers are fairly traditional as well. As a time capsule of New York and New Jersey in the Fifties and Sixties, it is consistently engrossing ... Auster’s late writing has shown something of a mania for inventories and in 4 3 2 1 at times this tendency metastasizes into unwieldy historical checklists. But more often the surplus description is born of generosity and exuberance ... Auster’s tilt away from the stifling control of locked-room mysteries toward the hail-mary risks of interwoven shaggy-dog coming-of-age stories is rejuvenating. He returns to many of his old hobbyhorses in 4 3 2 1, but here they are restored from the level of abstract metaphor to their rightful place in the real world ... Though the book’s plots are by and large little more than scaffolding for Auster’s lavishly appointed memory theater, they’re still fairly lively ... These latter portions flag. This is perhaps symptomatic of all coming-of-age stories, which address the process of relinquishing cherished attachments; the arc they describe moves toward loss and isolation. But it’s especially true for an author as single-minded as Auster.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalTransit is, again, a novel of anecdotes—confided by friends and colleagues, by men hoping to seduce Faye, by the workers, the realtor and even the hairdresser ... just what she—and by extension the reader—is learning from these conversations is less evident ... tension is uncomfortably ubiquitous in Transit, which faithfully captures the feelings of agitation and powerlessness that come with change. But these are not especially edifying feelings to develop, and as a stand-alone novel Transit is a puzzling spectacle of tetchy behavior ... Transit is a frustrating, fractious experience, but it should be a step toward a unique and rewarding whole.
Huck Out WestRobert Coover
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s fun to imagine the picturesque insults [Twain would] hurl against Mr. Coover and his publishing house. Everyone else, though, is free to enjoy this sly bit of fan fiction ... Huck Out West doesn’t deconstruct The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so much as reprise it. Jim, Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer all make amusing cameos, the latter as a cheerfully amoral killer who sees the Indian Wars as a prime venue for more storybook adventures ... Dark events form the backdrop of this novel, but as in Twain’s original, the winsome humor of Huck’s 'muddytatings' lend the story a deceptive innocence ... Twain might have admired the sentiment, though that wouldn’t have stopped the lawsuits.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a sensuous, exquisitely crafted wallowing in grief and tragedy ... Ann is the novel’s protagonist, but Ms. Ruskovich assumes the perspectives of numerous characters and scene-shifts from the distant past to the near future. The effect is to create a complex spider’s web of telling moments that ensnares the reader in the deep, meaningless suffering at the book’s center. There’s no catharsis on offer in Idaho. The point is a sadness so totalizing that it begins to resemble pleasure.
Selection DayAravind Adiga
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalClass resentment is the gasoline that fuels the brothers’ ambitions and gives this novel its noisy volatility. The gritty urban realism that animated The White Tiger (2008) and Last Man in Tower (2011) is again on display, and though Selection Day is a slighter work—more a slice of life than a sprawling social exposé—it churns with the same propulsive energy. The book’s most touching, if somewhat underdeveloped, aspect concerns the rivalry between Radha and Manjunath themselves, who begin as allies against their controlling father and the wealthier players who dominate the sport and end as rivals for a coveted place on the Indian national team. A story with biblical echoes emerges, as it’s Manjunath, an eerily coldblooded genius between the wickets, who steals his older brother’s birth rite. Their relationship will resonate with American readers who usually regard cricket with bewilderment.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a flamboyantly imaginative work of fiction dressed in the sheep’s clothing of autobiography ... though Moonglow plays some light postmodernist tricks with the line between fiction and autobiography, it sincerely exalts the era as an American Age of Heroes, a time of marvels and portents, valor and tragedy ... Prose is still Mr. Chabon’s best tool of persuasion. But the troubled figure of the grandmother, a refugee who arrives in the U.S. with a small daughter and a numbered tattoo on her forearm, is what makes Moonglow his most confident and complex performance ... a movingly bittersweet novel that balances wonder with lamentation.
The Explosion ChroniclesYan Lianke
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis darkly absurd history trucks freely with the fantastic—the city’s airport is built in less than a week—but many of the more brazen events are taken straight from the news ... Mr. Yan’s burlesque of a nation driven insane by money is equally a satire of some of the excesses of the Chinese Revolution.
Thus Bad Begins
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThus Bad Begins delivers all of Mr. Marías’s trademark qualities—chewy philosophical meditation, prose of fastidious elegance and the suspense of an old-fashioned potboiler ... This is the 12th of Mr. Marías’s books that Margaret Jull Costa has brought into English, and it’s now clear that the two have forged one of the most fruitful author-translator partnerships in current literature.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
MixedThe Wall Street Journal[A] note of resignation appears early in the novel, and despite the sensitivity and intelligence of what follows, it’s something the book never quite transcends ... These are two vastly different storylines, and in truth they make incongruous partners. The only clear commonality is politics ... In depicting the nuances of social division, Ms. Smith has few peers...She can be wonderfully astute and funny ... Swing Time is dotted with superb touches. Why then does the book feel so flat? The trouble is that the commentary outstrips the drama...More often Ms. Smith analyzes the music and the problems behind it. You wish she would just sing.
The Story of a Brief MarriageAnuk Arudpragasam
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] exceptional debut novel ... With rapt precision, the novel details the first hours of this makeshift union ... Mr. Arudpragasam depicts [war] realistically, as a meaningless, machine-like force of destruction. And in examining the basic particulars of human interaction, his book displays the devotional intensity that Mr. Foer’s characters endlessly pontificate about but rarely find.
Undermajordomo MinorPatrick deWitt
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. deWitt, whose previous novel was the fine Western pastiche The Sisters Brothers (2011), has a good time toying with fairy tale conventions. The story is farcical, macabre and surprisingly lewd (after the baroness finally returns there is one of the strangest orgy scenes you’ll ever read). As I read the book, I more than once made the sound the valet finds so base and unpleasant.
What Belongs to YouGarth Greenwell
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Greenwell is a scrupulous observer of this trajectory, and he describes with sensuous and often unflattering precision the union of shame and desire ... Yet for all the time devoted to it, What Belongs to You is insubstantial, more like a beautifully wrought character portrait than a full-blooded novel.
Thomas MurphyRoger Rosenblatt
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...the book’s true attraction is the poet’s wonderfully quotable running commentary on 'the grand discombobulation' of experience, which he regards with undimmed enjoyment.
My Name is Lucy BartonElizabeth Strout
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...part of the deep melancholy of this novel grows from Lucy’s gradual discovery of the inadequacies of therapeutic art. Writing, she learns, is tantamount to a declaration of solitude, and writing honestly means living close to your hurts and longings.
Hotels of North AmericaRick Moody
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHotels of North America has its eye-rolling distractions, too—the name R.E. Morse, for instance—but it’s a much more controlled performance and inflected by gentle humor. Mr. Moody has a perfect grasp of the new genre of online reviewing, which is faceless yet weirdly interactive.
All the HousesKaren Olsson
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhen All the Houses turns to flashbacks to the 1980s to reveal...family secrets, it resolves into a smart, gregarious domestic drama. As to the facts of the Iran-Contra affair, Ms. Olsson is happy to let the historians try to figure them out.
The Secret ChordGeraldine Brooks
PanThe Wall Street JournalMs. Brooks capably presents that enigma, but you will wish she went further toward unraveling it. David’s story is packed with incident, and she must resort to some dutiful summarizing in order to get everything in. What gets lost is the work of interpretation and the insights that make her reading of the story distinct from anybody else’s.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalInnocents and Others is more expansive [than Stone Arabia], but the same omniscient intelligence is employed in layering ironies and superimposing themes of memory, identity, reality and representation while building toward the two women’s inevitable convergence...But even as the book’s complexities turn into high gear, Ms. Spiotta’s writing stays cool to the touch.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe combination of grisly James Patterson thriller and melancholic suburban drama shouldn’t work at all. Yet Ms. Yun pulls it off. Kyung is petulant and unlikeable, but he’s also psychologically unstable. The proximity of his parents and the atmosphere of grief and panic launch him on a spiral of self-destruction that’s impossible to turn away from. The novel grows darker and darker, until all its internal contradictions are eclipsed by an ending as disturbing and bereft as anything you’ll read this year.
I Met SomeoneBruce Wagner
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s all quite tame, with none of the vengeance-is-mine anger that animated Mr. Wagner’s 2012 thrill ride of a novel, Dead Stars...The Greeks wrote their tragedies about kings and queens, and this curious novel positions the mega-famous as our modern day royalty.
The Year of the RunawaysSunjeev Sahota
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...this intricately woven story of a group of Indians who have come to England seeking work powerfully reminds us of just what immigrants seek in the West ... Mr. Sahota’s superb novel helps to make the reality of migrants a little less unimaginable and a little more human.
Ways to DisappearIdra Novey
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...veers from flummoxed absurdity to macabre violence in a way reminiscent of a Coen brothers movie ... Absences and omissions, the unspoken and the unspeakable, carry much of the weight in this spare, witty riddle of a novel. For Ms. Novey’s characters, it isn’t just Beatriz who has gone missing, but some deeper truth essential to their self-knowledge.
Forty RoomsOlga Grushin
RaveThe Wall Street Journal“Forty Rooms is a deft, engaging novel written with rare eloquence. But a ferociously uncompromising morality play lurks within it.
The HeartMaylis de Kerangal, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...his translation throbs with beauty, sorrow and an undimmed astonishment at the life of the body. At one point Ms. de Kerangal gives us a bird’s-eye view of nighttime Paris rising up 'under a dome of corpuscular light.' Her novel is suffused with the same human glow.
Good on PaperRachel Cantor
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Cantor ingeniously matches the dilemmas of poetics to personal matters ... So it’s a letdown when, in the novel’s final third, this deft juggling act collapses ... Pat biographical summary takes the place of textual interpretation, and the book flattens into a soap opera. Good on Paper tantalizingly tinkers with storytelling novelties, but it ends up in old and familiar territory.
Dark at the CrossingElliot Ackerman
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ackerman, who lives in Istanbul and has written some fine reportage from the Turkish borderlands, knows Gaziantep well and sharply depicts its incongruities ... Abandonment forms a mournful theme in Dark at the Crossing. Daphne is haunted by the fact that her daughter’s body was never recovered and, with her husband’s fatalistic consent, decides to follow Haris to Aleppo on a hopeless quest to find it ... moral confusion gives Dark at the Crossing its bleak power ... Mr. Ackerman shows boldness and empathy in trying to envision modern conflagrations from foreign vantage points. But the book is less successful at capturing the illuminating particulars of the Syrian tragedy, the things that make it different from other blasted Middle East warzones. His writing is journalistic rather than imaginative.
Before the FallNoah Hawley
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Hawley withholds the unpredictable truth about the plane crash until the final chapters, though veteran readers of thrillers may not be particularly impressed by the tricks he uses to draw out the suspense—a case of temporary amnesia that prevents Burroughs from remembering the flight and a black box that investigators take an eternity to fish out of the ocean. The real satisfaction of this addictive novel is in the face-off between Burroughs and the media mob spearheaded by Cunningham and his tabloid shock troops. On one side are the rabid forces of fearmongering, vulgarity and snide insinuation. To his surprise, Burroughs becomes a very public standard-bearer for patience and decency, and the quiet battle he wages for those virtues is cathartic. Before the Fall is about the gulf that separates perception and truth, and the people who fall into it.
The Mirror ThiefMartin Seay
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[T]he production of enriched confusion is equally a talent of the most adventurous novelists, and it is one that Mr. Seay confidently deploys in his wondrous debut, a deliciously intricate, centuries-spanning tripartite tale of money and mysticism...The immortal yearning to take occult powers in hand drives each story to a thrilling ending. Mr. Seay has conjured his own kind of sorcery, a sophisticated thriller that keeps the pages turning even as it teases the mind.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe slow story, full of alcoholism, suicidal nightmares, long-held vendettas and endless shades of guilt, rivals Hardy for gothic bleakness (the primal schism at the outset brings to mind The Mayor of Casterbridge). It feels like something of a capstone to Ms. Erdrich’s recent gray period. Her choral-voiced early books, such as the school syllabus staple Love Medicine (1984), juggled tragedy and comedy together. LaRose offers a unified vision of human suffering, which, however compelling, allows little space for life’s other emotions.
A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...an epic study of trauma and friendship written with such intelligence and depth of perception that it will be one of the benchmarks against which all other novels that broach those subjects (and they are legion) will be measured ... What’s remarkable about this novel, and what sets it apart from so many books centered on damaged protagonists, is the poise and equanimity with which Ms. Yanagihara presents the most shocking aspects of Jude’s life. There is empathy in the writing but no judgment, and Jude’s suffering, though unfathomably extreme, is never used to extort a cheap emotional response.
Eleven HoursPamela Erens
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe writing is candid without being sensational, detailed without being clinical. This admirable novel reminds us that even when childbirth is overseen by caring professionals in state-of-the-art facilities, it still arrives on waves of blood.
Heat & LightJennifer Haigh
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalBy taking on such a politically divisive issue, Ms. Haigh is vulnerable to what you might call Barbara Kingsolver syndrome—dressing up sententious lectures in a gauze of melodrama. But as she demonstrated in 2011’s Faith, a deft and unpredictable novel springing from the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, she knows how to isolate persuasive local conflicts from national news stories...There’s not a boring page in this fittingly chaotic chronicle of our 21st-century oil rush.
God Help the ChildToni Morrison
MixedThe Wall Street JournalGod Help the Child is stylistically consistent with Ms. Morrison’s whole body of work. The narrative is stereoscopic, jumping from the points of view of major and minor characters. There is also a touch of hallucinatory magic realism, as Bride’s transformation into a child takes a literal form—for a time during her breakdown her breasts and pubic hair seem to vanish, as though maturation is running in reverse. The noticeable difference, however, is a weakening in the power of Ms. Morrison’s prose ... the sense of poetic enlargement of her major novels is absent from God Help the Child.
Gold Fame CitrusClaire Vaye Watkins
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIt sounds like science fiction, but this splendid debut novel is really a reinvigorated version of the classic tales of settlement on the American frontier ... Gold Fame Citrus is the first of the recent outbreak to fully imagine the natural world in the wake of catastrophe. Ms. Watkins potently evokes the nightmarish and the spectacular.
My Struggle: Book FiveKarl Ove Knausgaard
PanThe Wall Street JournalIt’s the most charmless installment so far, composed in delirious haste and possessing none of the bird’s-eye-view meditations on art and mortality that threw the prosaic chronicles of the early volumes into interesting relief. But at this point it hardly matters. Yeoman readers who have already made it through 2,000 pages of these 'struggles' will simply hold on for dear life as the Knausgaard leviathan drags them where it will, little knowing where they’ll all end up next year when the final volume at last carries them back to shore.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Eileen is a moody, spookily mesmeric tale of small-town murder ... Readers expecting a traditional crime novel may be frustrated by the book’s slow build-up and looping digressions. 'Some of my clearest memories may seem wholly irrelevant,' Eileen remarks, 'but I will include them when I feel they add to the mood.' But it is in that gritty, claustrophobic atmosphere that Ms. Moshfegh’s talents are most apparent. This young writer already possesses a remarkably sighted view into the bleakest alleys of the psyche.
Imagine Me GoneAdam Haslett
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Haslett is alert to the reality of others, and the insinuating power of this novel comes from its framing of mental illness as a family affair. Michael’s siblings are both wholly convincing characters, shaped by the abiding question of how much, or how little, they are meant to act as their brother’s keepers.
Zero KDon DeLillo
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt would be easy to read this late work as a dark, oracular warning about 21st-century manipulations of mortality. But what Zero K actually demonstrates is that Mr. DeLillo’s true brilliance has always been as a satirist...Alas, Zero K does eventually become solemn, trading droll humor for portentous invocations of warfare and destruction that have little to do with the Convergence. This shift was also a weakness of White Noise (1985), which begins as a splendid academic satire and turns into an incoherent cautionary tale about nuclear annihilation. The temptations of prophecy—of terrible, beckoning insight—are too great for Mr. DeLillo to entirely resist. Zero K is best when he can’t figure out how to open the doors.
LadivineMarie NDiaye, Trans. by Jordan Stump
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe parallel but non-overlapping narratives of the two Ladivines provide the novel’s most haunting effects. Yet while Ms. NDiaye addresses her themes of separation and disappearance with artistry, it is overshadowed by the book’s grim, devoutly humorless tone. Translator Jordan Stump has done faithful, diligent work, but the prose is as solemn and droning as a church organ.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHystopia's tale-swallowing metafiction ingeniously embodies the self-replicating mental prisons of war trauma (in Allen’s telling, even enfolded veterans feel caged inside their forgetfulness). But it also negates the writing’s emotional energy. Allen fantasizes about a 'reunification' with the past that would free victims from trauma’s grip, but the framing sections focusing on Allen’s suicide expose this dream as a sad delusion. Mr. Means’s novel is, in the end, a superbly stylized embellishment on emptiness and despair, a book that revives the narrative excitements of postmodernism at its peak while drifting into the moral vacuum so often at its core.
So Much For That WinterDorthe Nors, Trans. by Misha Hoekstra
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGetting dumped: It happens to everyone. But when it happens to you, the agony seems unique in the annals of suffering. Danish writer Dorthe Nors covers the emotional spectrum of the experience in the two playfully experimental novellas of So Much for That Winter, finding as much material in the comedy of rejection as in its humiliations and heartbreak...The delightful 'Minna Needs Rehearsal Space' begins as a young Copenhagen composer is dropped by her boyfriend via text message in favor of a sexy pop musician...It’s here that Ms. Nors’s impish wit stands out.
As Good as GoneLarry Watson
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThere’s a plainspoken toughness to this writer—nothing of the lofty soliloquizing of Ivan Doig or the verbal dash of Thomas McGuane—that has led to him be overlooked in the large herd of fine Montana novelists. As Good As Gone is the latest of his books to forge satisfying drama from the intersection of Western mystique and middle-class reality...Mr. Watson points up some grubby truths behind the archetypal Western tale of the loner who comes to town and dispenses rough justice. It’s typical of this thoughtful novelist that the ending of As Good As Gone is nuanced rather than explosive, and its traces of heroism are found not in violence but in a show of restraint.
Before the WindJim Lynch
PositiveThe Wall Street Journalan affectionate and very funny tribute to the gentle madness of sailing diehards ... Josh’s sardonic commentary on the mystique of sailing will amuse even readers who can’t tell a jib from a spinnaker. (His hilarious gloss on the Viagra commercial that confusingly features a middle-aged man alone on a boat is worth the cover price on its own.) And while Mr. Lynch often steers in the direction of sitcom whimsy—scenes of Josh’s dating misadventures are unneeded ballast—his writing is propelled by his appreciation of the obsessives and eccentrics who populate the country’s marinas.
Grief Is the Thing with FeathersMax Porter
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...while appreciating this book doesn’t require knowledge of Hughes’s poems or the trickster myths on which they drew, those things certainly help. The constant literary allusions make Grief is the Thing with Feathers unpredictably playful, filling it with sarcasm, absurdity and black-winged humor.
The GirlsEmma Cline
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe surprise of this novel is its almost studious avoidance of shock and sensationalism. There’s nothing here to do with 'Helter Skelter' or Manson’s ravings about an apocalyptic race war. The murders, when they come, are motivated by banal reasons of revenge. Even drugs and sex have relatively minor roles. What Ms. Cline delivers instead is an atmosphere of eerie desolation and balked desire thanks to her sensuous turns of phrase ... Of course heightened lyricism deployed in prodigal amounts will fall flat. And I suspect some readers will resent the bait and switch of turning one of the last century’s most lurid crimes into yet another low-simmering excavation of longing and anomie. Yet The Girls is a hypnotic, persuasively melancholy performance.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
PanThe Wall Street Journal...it’s difficult to sustain a novel with the kind of low-grade conflict that his ambivalence and inertia provide. To his credit, Mr. Foer is aware of the dilemma, and the book is replete with self-conscious diagnoses that might apply equally to Jacob and, one feels, to the current state of Jewish-American fiction ... A lot of Here I Am is just psychiatrist’s-couch platitudes ... In Here I Am, he invents the catastrophe, but he exploits it for the same kind of tackily ennobling personal transformation.
New PeopleDanzy Senna
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMaria’s confusion is central to the breakdown that follows her obsession, and Ms. Senna deftly draws it out in the way of an espionage thriller, peeling back her characters’ racial personas as though they were so many disguises ... The frankness with which New People treats race as a kind of public performance is both uncomfortable and strangely cathartic. Being a performance, it transforms easily into deception, and the story hinges on two hallucinatory sequences in which Maria falsifies her identity in order to sneak into the poet’s apartment. The ending of this brittle, provocative novel carries the fated sense of a utopia heading inexorably toward collapse.
Compartment No. 6Rosa Liksom, Trans. by Lola Rogers
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Liksom conjures beauty from the ugliest of things. As she finds something wily and comical in the unforgettably horrible Ivanov, so she imbues the industrial wastelands with an inexplicable charm ... What emerges is a twilight-hued elegy to the sickly last days of a wicked empire.
Still HereLara Vapnyar
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe apps and nonstop social media updates are new, but otherwise Still Here is a brisk and amusing reboot of the familiar immigrant tale. Culture clashes, loneliness and mishaps in love and work fill the foursome’s days. Ms. Vapnyar throws in a bit of existential dread for spice. The novel jumps along episodically toward its implausible happy ending, a little in the way of a TV series. Think Friends with a heavy Russian accent.
War PornRoy Scranton
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWar Porn concludes in an act of chilling brutality, a distillation of Mr. Scranton’s vision of the American misadventure in Iraq and a fitting end to one of the best and most disturbing war novels in years.
Today Will Be DifferentMaria Semple
PanThe Wall Street JournalAs in Ms. Semple’s 2012 best seller Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the shenanigans mask deeper fears of losing family members. But it’s hard to warm to this high-strung heroine who, like idle narcissists the world over, flatters herself that she is stressed beyond endurance. Really, there are no conflicts in the book that Eleanor couldn’t fix with three phone calls and her MasterCard.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalLoner moves ahead to its climax (and a superbly executed plot twist) with the sickening momentum of a horror movie. Though the study of a brainy, insecure Harvard kid has parallels to the movie The Social Network, Mr. Wayne is working with far darker material. This is Neil LaBute territory, full of misogyny, compulsion and duplicity.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalClose observation and deadpan humor unite the episodes...But the pussyfooting treatment of Cal’s death is a reminder that for all the boldness of Ms. Patchett’s set-ups, she has often lacked the dramatic killer instinct ... It’s telling about this novel that although a gun is introduced in the early chapters, and Chekhov regularly invoked, it never goes off.
PanThe Wall Street JournalYou can provide your own 'to be or not to be' crack, but rest assured that Mr. McEwan is happy to do it for you. Nutshell is an arch, strenuous, one-joke performance, the reading equivalent of a grueling night at an amateur improv. Mr. McEwan no doubt enjoyed himself. As for his readers? As Hamlet complained, 'though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.'”
Private NovelistNell Zink
PanThe Wall Street JournalBoth were evidently written in a matter of weeks, and both narratives vanish into random digressions and arch opinions on literature ... Should such a person as a Nell Zink completist exist, this overwrought inside joke might be of interest. Everyone else should save their money and sanity and read her other books instead.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a hilarious perversion of the rom-com ... [Zink] has affectionate fun tweaking the pieties of her cast of businessmen, cultists and activists ... beyond the satirical flourishes, the novel’s real agenda is to be amusing. Ms. Zink’s world is bawdy and absurd but essentially harmless. After marching her characters through a succession of ridiculous mishaps, she rewards them all with happy endings. It’s freeing to read a novel that’s both so witty and so inconsequential. Nicotine is light reading in the best sense. Think Wodehouse for millennials.
The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic ShoreRobert Finch
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] lovely and fortifying book ... Mr. Finch is a practiced hand at this kind of essay yet, as he admits, he is following the vanished footprints of a remarkable roster of Cape Cod nature writers. The Outer Beach doubles as a rich literary tour ... Eventually the sea is going to win the war. 'Who’s protesting?' he asks. 'Who’s taking the ocean to court to "save the Cape"? We make such a mighty fuss, as if it matters, even to us. We are spindrift, and we know it.' Until it goes, may there continue to be writers as good as Mr. Finch to commemorate it.
American WarOmar El Akkad
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...a vision of approaching ruin that doubles as a sharp critique of current American foreign policy ... American War is not a subtle book, and Mr. El Akkad is using the future to make a blunt point about the present. By substituting defiant Southerners for Muslim fundamentalists, he seeks to make the victims of the 'War on Terror' more recognizable and the blowback more coherent ... Yet the parallels only stretch so far. Somehow neither race nor religion figures into this civil war, which makes the implied connections between Confederate rebels and jihadist insurgents superficial at best ... Even so, American War is a provocative thought experiment and a rewarding conversation piece.
Home FireKamila Shamsie
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Shamsie develops crosscutting lines of loyalty to family, faith and public duty. Isma and Aneeka are divided on the question of whether their responsibility is to report their wayward brother to officials or try to covertly secure his return. Lone, the book’s most complex and intriguing figure, has won the acceptance of the suspicious populace through unforgiving crackdowns of his fellow Muslims. Alas, Ms. Shamsie disperses much of the tension in these conflicts by fragmenting the story among different points of view. Home Fire is thoughtful and thought-provoking, but too piecemeal to build to a satisfying tragedy.
Midwinter BreakBernard MacLaverty
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] wrenchingly intimate depiction of a couple in the chilly, hibernal years of their marriage ... Mr. MacLaverty’s telescopic observational powers imbue these routines with rare and unexpected beauty ... Spliced into these prayer-like scenes are glancing flashbacks to the attack in Belfast. Midwinter Break gradually expands to reveal a couple both scarred and soldered together by near tragedy. Even as Gerry and Stella float apart, their shared memories are like cords that keep returning them to one another.
AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
PanThe Wall Street JournalThroughout Americanah there is a sense that Ms. Adichie believes the world requires a good lecturing and that she is the person to deliver it. The story balloons with unearned smugness. Virtually every secondary character seems to have been introduced for no other reason than to be scolded or belittled … There's something strangely old-fashioned about the strain of intolerance that runs through this book—artistically, it's no different than tendentious Victorian novels in which women of loose virtue are identified by their immodest apparel and saucy table manners. In both cases, morality is confused with moralizing.
AutumnKarl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PanThe Wall Street JournalIt’s an impressively cynical hustle, a publishing Ponzi scheme designed to attract interest to a new series in the narrowing interval that the Norwegian’s star is in ascendance. In fairness, something as thin as Autumn requires such machinations ... The author has always been an heir to the Romantics, but here he has dropped the bad-boy Byronic posturing of My Struggle in favor of gaseous Wordsworthian odes. The entries are either maudlin (to see porpoises swim is to feel that 'they are touching you, as if you have thereby been chosen') or jejune (churches, you will be amazed to read, 'represented another level of reality, the divine').
PanThe Wall Street JournalMixed with this family drama is a half-formed political subplot. Frida's older brother, we learn, was once a member of a cadre of student radicals called the Group and killed himself in a shopping-mall suicide bombing. The Group looms large when Frida and Cal leave their forest hideaway for an egalitarian settlement called the Land, which is run by a charismatic cult leader with shady—and ultimately rather incoherent—intentions … As California concludes, the schemes come to light, and the Land's community spirit fractures. But by this point, Ms. Lepucki is just ticking off items on a dystopian fiction checklist. After the apocalypse, when survivors scavenge the midden-heap of our lost civilization and find all these post-apocalypse novels, will they marvel at our prescience or just wonder at our lack of originality?
Broken RiverJ. Robert Lennon
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAlong the way, something interesting happens to the Observer: It becomes sentient, and as it perceives 'the gears of cause and effect locking together, increasing in rotational velocity,' it grows curious about the fates of the characters. The conceit adds a layer of awareness to a skillful if otherwise conventional crime story. Broken River is a novel that watches as its own plot unfolds, wondering at the way that 'everything is exquisitely interconnected, malevolent, and dangerous.'
White TearsHari Kunzru
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Kunzru is a first-rate writer with a weakness for experimentation. In the book’s latter chapters, he flattens the different time periods into a single, hallucinatory storyline, making it difficult to grasp even the basics of what is happening from moment to moment. But the novel resolves itself to a startling and memorable comeuppance at the finale. To fetishize the blues, Mr. Kunzru suggests, is to enjoy the fruits of suffering while ignoring the suffering itself. This ghost story is about balancing the ledger.
The Red-Haired WomanOrhan Pamuk, Trans. by Ekin Oklap
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...the first half of the novel [is] allusive, enchanting and perfectly controlled ... Haunted by his past, Cem grows obsessed with ancient tales of patricide and filicide, particularly Oedipus Rex and the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic the Shahnameh. Whole chapters are devoted to recondite scholarly investigations, à la Umberto Eco, to unpack the hidden meanings of these texts. When a real estate opportunity returns Cem to Öngören, Mr. Pamuk forces an inevitable reckoning with the red-haired woman and others who know what he did at the well, contriving events so that they mirror those of the famous stories. This, combined with a late-occurring narrative switcheroo, makes it impossible to discern what in the story has been the result of Cem’s actions and what has 'been dictated by myth and history.' An enticing book cedes, in the end, to storytelling at its most pointlessly rococo, the kind that invariably seems more fun to dream up than to read. Mr. Pamuk’s postmodern tricks may make him appear contemporary, but it’s when he’s being old-fashioned that his writing is most vital and alive.
My Absolute DarlingGabriel Tallent
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...you’re on red alert every time [Martin] enters the room. Impressively, this is also a novel of great beauty, filled with lush evocations of the woods and 'the ocean broken by kelp beds, the bulbs and fronds stirring the surface' ... her interior monologue seems impossibly articulate. The only way to escape her father’s virtual suicide pact is through violence, and the novel culminates in an irruption of gunplay. Naturally, she’s also a crack shot. [Turtle] is different from the child abuse victims in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. She has more in common with Batman, another crusading outsider who came to his powers through unimaginable trauma. Abuse narratives and superhero adventures may be the most popular storytelling genres of our age—it was only a matter of time before they merged.
Conversations With FriendsSally Rooney
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...this novel partakes in the inexplicably chic trend epitomized by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot of merely recording everything its characters do or say, like a video feed, with no effort to discriminate between the trivial and the significant. Readers, therefore, have to push through reams of banal small talk and hackneyed dinner-party imagery ... Then things change...Suddenly the book takes on the excitement of a romance novel or Hugh Grant film about ordinary folk who have relationships with gorgeous celebrities. The writing picks up purpose and intensity. The sex scenes are, well, sexy, which is rarer than you’d think. Ms. Rooney’s trick is to render them largely in dialogue, avoiding awkward anatomy lessons. A breathless page-turner emerges ... A lot of affectation encrusts Conversations With Friends and the ironic repartee gets old quickly. But even the filler can’t disguise that Ms. Rooney is a natural-born storyteller.
The Floating WorldC. Morgan Babst
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe mystery of the death propels the novel in a zigzag fashion, flashing back to the storm and then leaping forward in time to a hard-earned resolution. The force of Katrina has opened old wounds among the Boisdorés, and tangents in the story brush against marital infidelity, mental health and biases in class and race. Ms. Babst has a delicate way of depicting souls confronted by more hardship than they can bear, but the cataract of fears and grievances can make for punishing reading. Troy likens the flood to a great welling-up of sorrow. Once a feeling that powerful breaches the levees erected to contain it, it becomes all-consuming.
For Two Thousand YearsMihail Sebastian, Trans. by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Sebastian is] known for the diaries he kept between 1935 and 1944, in which, like Victor Klemperer in Germany, he chronicled his country’s headlong descent into fascism. For Two Thousand Years, a fictionalized diary based on Sebastian’s experiences in the decade prior, is a pendant to that vital document. It reveals a young, idealistic man grasping for freedom from the external oppression of anti-Semitism but also, paradoxically, from the beholdens of his Jewish heritage. The diary entries (in a vigorous translation by Philip Ó Ceallaigh ) follow the unnamed narrator from his time at university, when right-wing thugs beat up Jewish students when they attended classes, to his maturation as an emerging architect. The slender plot serves mostly as a vessel for passionate arguments. The narrator records his interactions with budding fascists, nihilists, Marxists and Zionists. But his fiercest debates are with himself.
Paris in the Present TenseMark Helprin
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[Helprin's] books are romances in the chivalric mold, in which beauty, love and bravery possess a greater reality than the characters dedicated to honoring them. This is true again in his enchanting new novel, Paris in the Present Tense, a ballad to the cardinal virtue of loyalty ... despite the catastrophes and forebodings that beset the story, Paris in the Present Tense is joyful and celebratory. Part of the pleasure of the novel is in its ecstatic asides, eulogizing the glories of Paris or the transcendent power of music.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt all makes for a good story, a convincing portrait of a middle-aged man enduring a rough patch after years of riding high. But worming through it are disturbing memories from his schooldays: a flirtatious comment from one of the Brothers who taught his French class, a grope at the hands of the wrestling instructor. Victor shrugs these things off, but gradually 'the lies, the gaps, the facts, the bits of my life' that he’s omitted come tumbling out. Mr. Doyle’s signature clipped dialogue is still a feature of Smile, but this short, effective novel is about the truths that emerge when, despite himself, Victor lets himself talk.
Five-Carat SoulJames McBride
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAnyone who enjoyed James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, the swaggering picaresque about a runaway slave that won the 2013 National Book Award, will be instantly at home with the stories in his new book Five-Carat Soul ...motley collection wields the same narrative bravado and acerbic sense of humor to peek at American history from unusual angles ...centerpiece is a quartet of stories set in a poor neighborhood of Uniontown, Pa., around the time of the Vietnam War ... The book’s single fault is that these characters are so engaging and their world so richly conceived that the four stories only whet the appetite for more.
The Good PeopleHannah Kent
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Good People concerns the collision of ancient customs with the forces of modernization, in medicine, local government and the law. Ms. Kent has a knack for conjuring the unsettled spirit world through deft stylistic flourishes … The Good People is far from a high-handed condemnation of superstitious belief. It makes the terrors of the past feel palpable and imminent.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat kind of experimental novel is theMystery.doc? From the early going it’s plain that the goal of this book is not to entertain but to sow discomfort. The passages are short, splintered and disconnected, sprays of 'random buckshot,' in Mr. McIntosh’s words...The writing throughout is numbed and uninflected, perceiving the world in the unfocused way of someone groggy from too much cold medicine. The mood ranges from puzzlement to muted horror ... The disjecta membra of disembodied voices and absurdist visuals are common in experimental novels that look to give form to a perceived breakdown in conventional narrative or in human relations more generally. But theMystery.doc goes further than anything before it: It reads like the first posthuman novel, an arbitrary sampling of web-searched text and images aggregated by no one for the benefit of no one. Much ink has been spilled pondering what the growing technological divide will do to the art of novel writing. There’s an answer in this book’s near-infinite feedback of glyphs and fragments, but you may have to be a machine to understand it.
Solar BonesMike McCormack
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s in sifting these homespun details that the formal risk pays such big dividends. The restlessly onrushing sentence confers a sense of urgency and holiness to Marcus’s 'daily rites, rhythms and rituals.' The ordinary is hallowed by the originality of its expression. And because the writing is so precise and consistent, one quickly adjusts to Marcus’s exhalations of thought and the reading becomes easy and natural. 'All good human stories no matter how they will pan out, you can feel that, the flesh and blood element twitching in them,' Marcus thinks. Solar Bones is a successful experimental novel, but more than that it is a good human story.
Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng
MixedThe Wall Street Journal[Ng] captures her setting with an ethnologist’s authority, fleshing out the region’s politics (progressive), its local scandal (a divisive custody battle), its infamous high school prank (the legendary Toothpick Day incident). And there are time-capsule pleasures in her evocation of 1997, when Jerry Springer ruled afternoon TV and internet searching was done on AltaVista. The writing is poised and tidy as well—too tidy, in fact, for a novel whose allegiances are with rebels and freethinkers. The characters’ central traits are so baldly stated that they may as well be spelled out in topiary ... Suburbia’s insidious power is that it, much like high school, transforms people into stereotypes, defining them exclusively by the degree to which they 'fit in.' Ms. Ng doesn’t dodge this trap. Which isn’t to say that Little Fires Everywhere isn’t smart and readable. It’s both, eminently so. But 2017 has seen unforgettable breakdowns of suburban domesticity in treatments as various as Nicole Krauss’s intellectual fantasia Forest Dark, Dan Chaon’s gothic horror novel Ill Will and the undiluted surrealism of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Ms. Ng’s book seems, in contrast, a little too orderly.
Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are a lot of stories to set in motion, and it takes Manhattan Beach a long time to get them running at full clip. The absence of any overriding vision tells in the novel’s dawdling middle sections. In places Ms. Egan re-creates archetypal mobster myths, reveling in all the usual gangland hokum: gats in ankle holsters, slipped mickeys, cement shoes. But elsewhere she tries to give an accurate historical representation of the Naval Yard during World War II, leading to information overloads...The prose is at loggerheads with itself in the same way. Damon Runyon-inspired slang sits awkwardly with SAT vocab words like 'invoke' and 'assuage' ... Fortunately, the novel’s exciting ending helps to compensate for its longueurs. It makes sense that Ms. Egan, with her attraction to the unfathomable, finds her groove when her story takes to the sea. Eddie’s ship is torpedoed by a U-boat and the suspenseful pages dramatizing his trials on the open ocean are almost worth the book’s price tag on their own.
Her Body and Other PartiesCarmen Maria Machado
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAs with [Angela] Carter’s reconfigurations, Ms. Machado’s stories are frank, sensual, often raunchy. The mythologies they mean to dispel concern the female body and the ways that it’s used, molded, mutilated, coveted, stigmatized or disregarded. Hidden within these objectified forms are the women’s true selves, made of forbidden secrets and unruly desires ... In the life cycle of an idea, something that was initially subversive is rapidly absorbed into the public consciousness and converted into yet another convention. 'Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?' a fellow writer asks the narrator. That 'old trope' shadows the book, and related themes, like sexual trauma and dystopian horror, have had their edges softened by constant use. Ms. Machado’s best stories—'The Husband Stitch' and 'Real Women Have Bodies'—deliver high-voltage shocks to the system. The others show how difficult it is to outpace the status quo.
Dinner at the Center of the EarthNathan Englander
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a moving, if sentimental, story of espionage, disappointed idealism and love across borders ... A twisty tale of spycraft and false allegiances unfolds, but what stands out is Mr. Englander’s insistence on finding romance amid the violence and deception. Spies fall in love with counterspies, Israelis with Palestinians, Prisoner Z with his guard. During the aborted peace process, the General strikes up a warm rapport with Yasser Arafat. The ageless struggle between Jews and Arabs comes to resemble a desperate lover’s embrace. But some of Mr. Englander’s most fervent devotionals are to the land itself, with its flowering deserts, 'the waterfalls and Nubian sandstone, the great dusty mountains and their spectacular views.' That ingrained attachment—and the conflicts it causes—continues to pull Jewish writers from the known world of America to this maddeningly unsolvable puzzle of a nation.
Fresh ComplaintJeffrey Eugenides
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe stories in this collection, which were written over the past 30 years, take on the disappointment of modern life, with all its self-inflicted failures and moral compromises … Mr. Eugenides seems to stick a dead key in each of these stories, making them intentionally flat or anticlimactic. This can result in some fine straight-faced comedy, particularly in ‘Baster,’ about a middle-aged woman on an extremely public search for high-quality sperm. But many of the stories read like early drafts for the author’s novels … ‘Great Experiment’ is one of the few stories here that feel satisfyingly complete.
Go, Went, GoneJenny Erpenbeck, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThough Go, Went, Gone hints at the epic in its storytelling—Richard gives the men he befriends sobriquets from ancient mythology—it dwells primarily in the prosaic, content to document everyday conversations and outings. The immigrants face little direct bigotry; their main adversary is German law, which with frosty indifference throws up insuperable obstacles to their efforts to apply for asylum. The often exasperating reportorial quality of the writing—the understated translation is by Susan Bernofsky —calls to mind J.M. Coetzee, whose flat, affectless prose wrests coherence from immense social turmoil. By making the predicament of the refugee banal and quotidian, Ms. Erpenbeck helps it become visible.
The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe story's surface is simple, polished almost to dullness and dependent on the revelation of a great secret that comes in the final pages. But what is hidden between the lines and perceived only through cracks of the controlled façade is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader unsettled for days … Mr. Barnes generates much suspense by withholding the final twist, but the typical aim of surprise endings, even sad ones, is to provide a feeling of order and comfort … Why, then, is The Sense of an Ending so ominous and disturbing? Because we have the constant suspicion that Tony is an unreliable narrator, but unreliable in a distinctive way—he seems to be lying more to himself than to the reader.
1Q84Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Murakami's infinite patience in revealing the secret connections between Tengo's and Aomame's lives has the benefit of charging quite banal scenes with an aura of unearthly import. But it can also seem stubbornly vague, as many of the novel's most nagging questions are left unanswered …. Among the many paradoxes that Mr. Murakami inhabits is the ability to be both over-explanatory and enigmatic at the same time. Despite the allegorical role that the Little People play, the novel is covered in a veil of mystery because we never learn precisely how they operate … There is something fundamentally insubstantial about Mr. Murakami's work. You tend to forget the books the moment you finish them, and this is no less true after an immense production like 1Q84...Mr. Murakami's books are wrapped in a cocoon—or an air chrysalis—of cultural amnesia. It's one last paradox: They are themselves too empty to say anything meaningful about emptiness.
The Woman UpstairsClaire Messud
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe Woman Upstairs updates the dictum of Virginia's Woolf's manifesto: It's not only a little money and a room of one's own that women need to produce art—it's a willingness to use and manipulate other people; it's a capacity for cruelty … The writing in The Woman Upstairs bears little resemblance to Woolf's crystalline prose. Perhaps surprisingly, Ms. Messud's strongest influence here is Philip Roth...Of course, Ms. Messud's unsparingly frank narration comes from a woman, which makes the novel a kind of rejoinder to Mr. Roth's decidedly male-centric universe … It forces itself on you, demands your attention, impresses and irritates. There is a genuine sense of unease in these pages, of something solid being overturned by the sheer force of Nora's rage.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn its sacramental respect for faith and doubt alike, and its reverent uncertainty about everything except the dignity and pathos of its characters, Lila is a book whose grandeur is found in its humility. That’s what makes Gilead among the most memorable settings in American fiction … Most striking of all is the bluesy beauty of the exposition. The novel is told in the third person, but it seamlessly inhabits the motions of Lila’s mind, and the irregular and imperfect hitches of her thinking are the legacy of her transience, her nearness to nature and her intimacy with the ‘great, sweet nowhere’ of homelessness.
The CircleDave Eggers
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Eggers's dystopia, filled with unnerving details drawn from today's Silicon Valley colossi, builds on charged, timely fears about a world that is replacing personhood with data and reality with the pale simulacra of cyberspace … It's frustratingly evident that The Circle contains nothing in the way of insight or sophistication … A writer with no respect for the intelligence of his characters usually has little for that of his readers, and there's a creepy sense that Mr. Eggers has intentionally dumbed down his storytelling. The novel's lessons seem both obvious and sanctimonious.
The Marriage PlotJeffrey Eugenides
MixedThe Wall Street JournalOne of Mr. Eugenides's many subtle tricks in The Marriage Plot is to make these three characters embody the ideas that disable them … It is in developing a story that The Marriage Plot encounters problems, because when Mr. Eugenides leaves behind collegiate jeu d'esprit and advances to more adult subjects like illness, marriage and religious faith he is far less assured … The glibness of the storytelling in The Marriage Plot seems gimmicky—in a book assailing literary gimmickry. The novel's worst contrivance is that it doesn't just obliquely call to mind David Foster Wallace; it practically brings him onstage in the character of Leonard.
The Orphan Master's SonAdam Johnson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSet during the recently ended reign of Kim Jong Il, the book is a work of high adventure, surreal coincidences and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality … Mr. Johnson is careful to temper the inherent comedy of a nation run according to the whim of someone called Dear Leader, showing us how his power is sustained through depravity and terror. Torture, in this novel, is the most important instrument used by the state to convert fiction into fact—truth is abandoned and lies are adopted, if the object of torture survives.
Salvage the BonesJesmyn Ward
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe writer Jesmyn Ward, however, has not entangled herself in the politics of the catastrophe...Katrina is portrayed strictly as a primal explosion, a thunderbolt hurled by a punishing god … Ms. Ward reminds us a little too insistently of the Medea story; the allusion begins to seem less symbolic than instructional. And while her dense, descriptive prose has many lovely touches, it can also turn humid with melodrama … The novel's power comes from the dread of the approaching storm and a pair of violent climaxes.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThroughout Redeployment, Mr. Klay juxtaposes the frenetic disorder of combat with the drawn-out bewilderment of civilian life … Mr. Klay's soldiers and veterans are preoccupied with storytelling, or at least with figuring out how to authentically convey their own exploits to people who weren't there. Despite their ‘Oo-rah!’ tough-talk—which they usually admit is an affectation—these are sensitive, introspective figures … ‘Prayer in the Furnace,’ the book's longest and most engrossing story, cuts to the hopeless difficulty of trying to distinguish Iraqi enemy combatants, whom soldiers are supposed to kill, from Iraqi civilians, whom they are supposed to protect … Mr. Klay gives a deeply disquieting view of a generation of soldiers reared on war's most terrible contradictions.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe chase drama advances in fits and starts, and Mr. Whitehead sometimes strains to fit it together with the extended scene-setting that goes into characterizing each state and which more obviously excites his gifts. What remains consistent, however, is the powerful intellectual undercurrent that courses beneath the story. For in its tour d’horizon of persecution, The Underground Railroad is inquiring into the very soul of American democracy, measuring the promise of its ideals against the facts of its history.
Forest DarkNicole Krauss
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] searching and intelligent novel ... By design, both of these stories drift and undulate like sand dunes, allowing Ms. Krauss to eloquently ruminate on marriage, memory, scripture, storytelling and of course Kafka. One of the steep pleasures of Forest Dark is how unabashedly bookish it is, a tendency that would seem to work against the novel’s embrace of uncertainty and intuition ... a book that’s as slippery as it is impassioned.
The Burning GirlClaire Messud
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Messud is at her most incisive in exploring the volatile transition from childhood to adolescence, 'a world of adult actions and of adult conjecture' ... [Cassie] makes for a very poignant character—rough, rebellious and nakedly vulnerable, giving the best of her love to someone who can’t return it ... Why, then, does the novel lack the careening intensity of The Woman Upstairs? The problems are mostly technical. Julia recounts Cassie’s tale two years after the fact, as she, Julia, enters her senior year of high school, but her narrative voice sounds too filtered and elegant to come from a 17-year-old, even one who stars on her school’s speech team ... Cassie is the sort of girl who sails toward the face of the storm. The novel stays in safe harbor, straining to keep her in sight.
Sing, Unburied, SingJesmyn Ward
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s difficult to reconcile the meanness of [Leonie's] behavior with the writerly sophistication of her interior monologue (peeking at Jojo she notices 'the moue of his lips, the low eyebrows'), and readers aren’t alone in being nonplused. Leonie is accompanied by the ghost of her brother Given, who was murdered by a cousin of Michael’s and who seems to sit in silent judgment of her marriage and the drug habit she nurtures to achieve forgetfulness ... Haunted by these spirits, the living also seem lost and unmoored, 'crying loose' in an age of perpetuated iniquity. Though provocative on their own, these vagrant personal dramas don’t hook together into a coherent pattern. Yet one relationship feels powerfully developed. Jojo has looked after Kayla since her birth and their connection is bone deep, beyond language. He alone knows where he’s needed and where he belongs.