Printer Friendly

Literary fiction.

Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

EXCELLENT

G. Willow Wilson is the author of the acclaimed graphic novel Cairo (2007), the comic series Air (2008) and Vixen (2008), and the memoir The Butterfly Mosque (2010). Born and raised in the United States, she converted to Islam as an adult and now divides her time between the United States and Cairo.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: In the capital of an unnamed Persian Gulf emirate, Alif (his Internet handle), a 23-year-old nonpartisan Arab-Indian hacker, shields his clients from censors and the secret police. After being jilted by an aristocratic woman he meets online (she chose the head of government security, nicknamed the Hand of God, no less!) and realizing that the Hand of God has hacked his computer, he goes on the run. When he comes into possession of an ancient book of stories, The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn (genies from Arabian mythology), Alif enters the realm of the supernatural and learns that, "stories aren't just stories. ... They're really secret knowledge disguised as stories." With companions such as the fantastical Vikram and Dina, the veiled girl next door, he begins his showdown with evil government forces.

Grove. 431 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780802120205

Salon.com [CLASSIC]

"It's difficult to convey how outrageously enjoyable Alif the Unseen is without dropping names--the energetic plotting of Philip Pullman, the nimble imagery of Neil Gaiman and the intellectual ambition of Neal Stephenson are three comparisons that come to mind. ... Seldom have the real world and the hidden one been so gloriously in sync." LAURA MILLER

io9.com [EXCELLENT]

"This is a breezy yet thought-provoking blend of techno-thriller and urban fantasy, set in an unnamed Arab emirate. It will whisk you away to the new vistas of wonder and wisdom, then return you before the waterglass falling from your nightstand has time to hit the floor." GREY_AREA

New York Times [EXCELLENT]

"In Alif the Unseen she spins her insights into an exuberant fable that has thrills, chills and--even more Remarkably--universal appeal. ... Ms. Wilson fills Alif the Unseen with an array of observations about contemporary culture: new questions of theology (if a sin is committed in virtual reality, is it still a sin?); fantasy literature and, most conspicuously, Western culture." JANET MASLIN

Seattle Times [EXCELLENT]

"Alif the Unseen is populated by memorable characters, both human and jinn. ... [It] richly rewards believers in the power of the written word." AGNES TORRES AL-SHIBIBI

Austin Chronicle [EXCELLENT]

"What Wilson's first novel has going for it is the exoticism of Arabian fantasy, a less-trodden path than the European versions of all things Faery. ... The characters are, albeit ethnically detailed, mostly convenient to the plot, and their reactions tend to feel not as believable as the more interesting parts of this thrill ride: for example, the faith-exploring bits of conversation between Alif, the fiercely religious Dina, and the Western-convert-to-Islam (perhaps her name is Mary al-Sue?) who gets roped into the mission." WAYNE ALAN BRENNER

Los Angeles Times [EXCELLENT]

"It is a novel in which the supernatural merges with the natural, in which myths and legends--genies, magic, the idea of an unseen world not exactly beneath the surface but at cross angles to this One--are taken at face value, woven into a larger adventure in which unwittingly, even at times unwillingly, Alif must take on the security apparatus of the state. ... If we read novels--and I think, in part, we do--to watch people wrestle their way out of situations, then to see a character rescued repeatedly by what amounts to divine intervention is to defuse the tension of the narrative. " DAVID L. ULIN

Wall Street Journal [EXCELLENT]

"Her previous work includes graphic novels, and there is a sense in Alif the Unseen that she is still counting on an illustrator to pick up the descriptive slack. ... The book advocates a model of Muslim faith that combines a return to the mysticism and spirituality that prevailed during Islam's artistic golden age with a forward-looking embrace of the creative freedom allowed by unfettered access to technology. " SAM SACKS

CRITICAL SUMMARY

G. Willow Wilson wrote this literary blend of history, religion, mysticism, mythology, and technology just before the protests began in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but its themes aptly presage the Arab Spring. "No matter," remarked the Los Angeles Times, "for this is Wilson's point throughout the novel, that stories channel something deeper, that narrative is the DNA, or the computer code, by which we dream reality (or the future) into being." Despite its heady themes about storytelling, revolution, and the role of belief in the modern world--all couched within a spiritual framework--the novel remains remarkably grounded in its characters and immersion in Gulf culture. Some thinly drawn scenes and an obligatory love story should not detract readers interested in a fast-paced fantasy and sociopolitical thriller.

EXCELLENT

The Coldest Night

A Novel of Love & War

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

By Robert Olmstead

Ohio Wesleyan writing professor Robert Olmstead has been a meticulous chronicler of war and its consequences in fiction. His novels include Coal Black Horse (**** July/Aug 2007), Far Bright Star (**** SELECTION Sept/ Oct 2009), America by Land (1993), A Trail of Heart's Blood Wherever We Go (1998), and Soft Water (1988). The Coldest Night recounts a young man's first love and his experience in the Korean War.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: In his native West Virginia, after finding and losing love--brief and intense--with Mercy, the daughter of a local judge, 17-year-old Henry Childs enlists in the Marines. He comes of age at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, where numbing cold, the chaos of war, the constant grind of men and material, and indiscriminate death test the limits of human endurance. Still barely a man, Henry returns home, as if "from some outer boundary of human existence and thought he was in the hell of an eternal return and never arriving," his previous life only a memory and his own adult life uncertain.

Algonquin. 304 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9781616200435

Christian Science Monitor [EXCELLENT]

"The writing is powerful and the imagery stark. Readers will find that the forgotten war roars back to life again in the pages of Olmstead's excellent novel."

Cleveland Plain Dealer [EXCELLENT]

"It is a measure of Olmstead's gifts that we believe the fighters might say these things. ... Those who enter The Coldest Night are wise to note that the opening verse comes from Job." KAREN R. LONG

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"Olmstead is an immensely gifted stylist, his prose capable of conveying the magic and passion of first love as well as the ferocity of battle. He also has a knack for imagery as memorable as it is unexpected." CHRIS BOHJALIAN

Columbus Dispatch [EXCELLENT]

"The Coldest Night might be too earnest for its own good, and it's not easy to read, by any means. But it has the courage of its convictions, and its descriptions of war and its aftermath are frighteningly credible." MARGARET QUAMME

NY Times Book Review [EXCELLENT]

"Though Olmstead's evocations of battlefield horrors can be stirring, it's his depiction of war's less monstrous aspects--the continuous repositioning of troops and reshuffling of strongholds, the ceaseless anticipation of surprise attacks, the unmitigated exhaustion--that steadily unsettles. ... The small faults in The Coldest Night exist in spaces that shadow the book's much larger successes." MIKE PEED

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Words matter to Robert Olmstead, whose prose has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy--both for his spare use of language and his unflinching recording of violence--and Hemingway's staccato reporting on the fog of war. It's no surprise, either, that Olmstead studied with Raymond Carver. In some ways, Olmstead is a war writer, and the Chosin Reservoir scenes in The Coldest Night are memorable as the author recounts the action with a surety born of constant close attention to the details of military operations. Still, within Olmstead's stories, there's a humanity that carries his characters through the difficult stretches, particularly in their conversations with one another. Even if Henry Childs comes home a changed man, he comes home. And that's something.

EXCELLENT

HHhH

By Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor

HHhH, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman prize, is Parisian writer Laurent Binet's first novel. HHhH refers to "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: The unnamed narrator of HHhH, like Laurent Binet, has spent years researching the assassination of ruthless S.S. leader Reinhard Heydrich, and he anguishes over how to tell the story. Although he wants to recount it as a thriller, he also wants readers to see "the historical reality that lies behind" Operation Anthropoid, the mission to kill the Nazi. Thus, readers join the narrator on his research trips to Prague as he considers various documents relating to the "Butcher of Prague" and his assassins: a Slovak factory worker and a Czech soldier recruited by the British secret service to parachute into a war zone and kill Heydrich. The story that follows--Heydrich's rise in the Nazi bureaucracy as "Protector" of Czechoslovakia, the lives of the resistance heroes-turned-killers, and the morning of May 27, 1942, when the two gunmen opened fire--is as harrowing as any crime thriller.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 327 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374169916

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel [CLASSIC]

"I struggle to write a review that does justice to one of the best and most original new novels I've read in years. ... That disconnect between narrative and history--between the stories we read on paper and what really happened--haunts Binet as he begins a story he describes as 'more fantastic and intense than the most improbable fiction.' " MIKE FISCHER

AV Club [EXCELLENT]

"There's something naive and moralistic about Binet's suspicion of imagination and rejection of playfulness. But he isn't wrong when he notes that the Holocaust has been debased by being used as fodder for too many cheap fantasies, by writers with a fraction of his thoughtfulness and wit. " PHIL DYESS-NUGENT

NY Times Book Review [EXCELLENT]

"[O]ne intriguing question remains unanswered: Is this a true account of how Binet wrote his book or did he plan its unusual structure from the start? Either way, the result is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened." ALAN RIDING

San Francisco Chronicle [EXCELLENT]

"Binet invents and then repudiates, worries over whether to include details based only on hearsay, compares his own work to previous treatments of Operation Anthropoid in film and literature. Metafiction becomes not a way to escape ethics, as many critics claim, but a way to acknowledge and grapple with the ethical implications of fictionalizing history." ANTHONY DOMESTICO

Telegraph (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon which all previous works have been built. Often impish and self-referential, and always as eager to show their workings as any top set maths student, these pieces of art complicate the genre for everyone that follows. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did it for the memoir, Reservoir Dogs for action films, and now HHhH does it for the historical novel." DAVID ANNAND

Guardian (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"Whether you find it something more than [a captivating performance] will depend on how you feel about the application of breezy charm and amusingly anguished authorial self-reflexiveness to a book about the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, who must be one of the most unfunny figures in recorded history. ... It isn't that Binet brings any major new information to light, but he marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill." JAMES LASDUN

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Binet's aim is to produce what he calls an "infranovel," a book that examines its own claims to truth. But HHhH is far more than a work of postmodern metafiction; it is a fabulous history of Operation Anthropoid and the men who carried it out; a biography of Heydrich; a searching personal memoir; and a lesson on how to write a historical novel that both honors the memory of history and tells a compelling story. HHhH succeeds as both fiction and history (Binet sprinkles the novel with text from Goebbels's diaries and Hitler's speeches, for example) while questioning the ethics of the former. But perhaps surprisingly, for all its self-reflexive musings, HHhH reads like a thriller. Only the Guardian critic questioned whether Binet's approach, at times playful, is appropriate for such a serious subject. But all reviewers agreed that Binet's story is, as he wrote, "more fantastic and intense than the most improbable fiction."

EXCELLENT

The World Without You

By Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. He is the author of Matrimony (2007), a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson (1997), a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. The World Without You is Henkin's third novel.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: For the affluent Frankel family, death has ignited long-standing tensions fueled by sibling rivalry, familial resentment, and marital strife. On July 4, 2005, the Frankels gather at their Berkshires vacation home to memorialize Leo, a journalist kidnapped and murdered on assignment in Iraq. Marilyn and David have drifted apart after the death of their only son; eldest daughter Clarissa must deal with the prospect of infertility; Washington, D.C., lawyer Lily feuds with younger sister Noelle, the rebellious outcast who has become an Orthodox Jew in Israel; and each sister experiences obstacles within her own marriage. Even Leo's widow and young son arrive with secrets of their own. Before reconciliation is possible, they each must deal with their own personal conflicts. Pantheon. 336 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780375424366

Denver Post [EXCELLENT]

"They do what families do, which is a complex dance of happy and sad, of distance and intimacy. Each is muddling through as best he and she can, and the heartbreak of the last year has concentrated the essence of each character. In the end, it is that essence, held at each character's core, that keeps the family from spinning out of control."

ROBIN VIDIMOS

Entertainment Weekly [EXCELLENT]

"I dutifully acknowledge Leo Tolstoy's famous Anna Karenina chestnut about the distinctive qualities of each unhappy family. But I also propose that it's damn difficult to make the basic unhappy-family novel distinctly one's own. Henkin does so with a one-two combination of strengths: psychological empathy for his realistic characters, and an expository modesty that draws attention away from the skilled writing itself--no showy sentences here, no cadenza-like phrasing--in order to focus, with great care, on the subtleties and complications of familial love." LISA SCHWARZBAUM

Miami Herald [EXCELLENT]

"Henkin is far too honest an observer of the American scene to construct a rosy or uncomplicated outcome for the Frankels. ... There's a lot of tender feeling here for the American family, on the ropes for sure, but well worth fighting for, Henkin's heartfelt novel Insists." ANDREW FURMAN

Minneapolis Star Tribune [EXCELLENT]

"[The characters'] memories recall ordinary threads in the fabric that makes up everyday life--applying calamine lotion to a child before day-camp, studying for high school tests, waking up in love in a college dorm room. The poignancy here is that Leo will never again experience these smaller rites, these lesser losses, that impart life--and novels--with meaning. " JACKIE REITZESS

NPR [EXCELLENT]

"The World Without You gives us a welcome portrait of the repercussions of faraway wars on people who usually consider themselves to be spectators. The most powerful and unexpected effect in this compassionate and beguiling novel is not what it tells us about Leo and his final days, but how much Henkin makes us care about those he has left behind." JANE CIABATTARI

Vanity Fair [EXCELLENT]

"Henkin's story of the closely knit Frankel clan, which ever since Leo's death has been steadily falling apart ... is about a family coming together again." ELISSA SCHAPPELL

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"Henkin never lets their story turn into a debate about the war in Iraq or the merits of Orthodox Judaism. What interests him is the texture of everyday existence and the constantly shifting human relationships embedded in it: the slip of the tongue over a child's name that stakes a grandmother's claim, the collective solving of a crossword puzzle that infuriates a slower-witted in-law, a brutally competitive tennis match that unexpectedly reconfigures the family dynamic." WENDY SMITH

CRITICAL SUMMARY

In Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson, Joshua Henkin turned snapshots of domesticity into compelling portraits of American lives, peeling back "layers to uncover revelations about each one in small, perfect shocks" (Boston Globe). In The World Without You, which draws comparisons to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Jonathan Trooper's This Is Where I Leave You, Henkin creates an intimate, multigenerational character study in survival told from the perspectives of three female protagonists. Henkin's characters are sympathetic and irritating, backward-looking and flawed, and Henkin is too honest to deliver the cliched happy ending. Despite the thematic familial discord, there is no nasty reprisal, no final blow that irrevocably severs familial ties; interior battles, Henkin suggests, are part of what it means to be a member of a typically dysfunctional family.

EXCELLENT

Capital

By John Lanchester

John Lanchester's previous novels include The Debt to Pleasure (1996) and Fragrant Harbor (2002). His journalism has appeared in many publications, including Granta, the Observer, the New Yorker, and the London Review of Books, where he serves as a contributing editor.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: The past few years have seen many books attempting to explain the recent global financial crisis. Capital is actually John Lanchester's second effort with this focus; while doing the research for this social novel, he penned an entertaining nonfiction account of the crisis, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). In Capital, Lanchester explores how the crisis plays out in the lives of the inhabitants of a single London street. On paper, rising home values have made all the residents of Pepys Road wealthy (whether they deserve it or not). But these Londoners are also under threat, receiving ominous postcards that warn "We Want What You Have." As the global financial crisis sets in, the mystery behind the postcards and the characters' lives begin to unravel. In sum, Lanchester explores the many ways in which the flow of capital affects the course of life in Great Britain's capital city.

Norton. 528 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780393082074

Globe and Mail (Canada) [EXCELLENT]

"Lanchester's insight is the basis for a revitalized social novel that reveals how the abstract realm of economic relations structure everyday experience. ... [W]hile definitely the pick of the season, Capital narrowly misses out on being the novel of the decade. We're still waiting for that one, the novel that pulls hard on the invisible threads connecting the speculative spaces of finance to the subjective realm of the self. " MATT KAVANAGH

NY Times Book Review [EXCELLENT]

"In the eventful year the novel spans, the residents of Pepys Road stagger from one trial to another and the postcard onslaught increases in frequency and nastiness, bringing with it fears that the campaign might sink everyone's property values. ... What does anyone on Pepys Road possess that can be defended?" LIESL SCHILLINGER

San Francisco Chronicle [EXCELLENT]

"Today's Britain boasts more-famous writers named Rushdie, McEwan and Mantel, but Lanchester, with his hopscotching versatility, can rest easy in their company. ... [His] first-rate novel Capital totes up the human costs of that debacle on a single London street." DAN CRYER

Seattle Times [EXCELLENT]

"Lanchester's cast of characters is so diverse that he's able to ping from one big subject to another: the Byzantine politics of asylum; the sacrifice of values in the fight against terrorism; a study of marriage as warfare; the mercenary nature of sport; the rot in the financial markets; and ruminations on aging and death and grieving." KEN ARMSTRONG

Wall Street Journal [EXCELLENT]

"Capital is too inconsistent and too averse to drama to fulfill its ambitions as an epic of our time, but it succeeds in illustrating the way that people continue to be bound, like communal hostages, to the unpredictable fluctuations of the economy and to the equally unpredictable behavior of their neighbors." SAM SACKS

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"Despite his command with the excesses of the period, Lanchester seems unwilling to make us gasp, to confront us with the truly creepy things people will do when cursed by extreme poverty or absurd wealth. The result is a novel that, for all its variety, works from a fairly predictable palette. " RON CHARLES

USA Today [GOOD]

"This novel is epic only in size. No epic heroism takes place, nothing major happens, only mundane events over a single year in the characters' lives. ... If strong plots, action and passion are among your prerequisites for taking on a long read, this may not be your cup of Earl Grey. " DON OLDENBURG

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [FAIR]

"From Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford, Britain has a long literary tradition of chronicling the lives of the upper crust, and Capital comfortably fits within the pantheon. ... Still, as the novel progressed, my main compliment and criticism of Capital became one and the same: The book impressively approximates the undulations of city life, but at an eventual cost to any central plot." CODY CORLISS

CRITICAL SUMMARY

John Lanchester's attempt to dramatize the way that residents in one of the world's financial capitals experience the global financial crisis divided critics. How should we balance these opposing views? Sadly, few thought that his novel had captured these current events with the finesse of his nonfiction work. Even admirers seemed uncertain about whether Capital was a great social novel or whether its theme just made it "too big to fail," as the Washington Post put it. Still, despite a plodding pace, reviewers found much to love in the book--from its sympathetic portrayal of people from various walks of life to a mystery plot that kept many of them guessing until the end. Fans looking for a contemporary update to the London of Anthony Trollope or Charles Dickens may do well to start here.

EXCELLENT

The Chaperone

By Laura Moriarty

Laura Moriarty is the author of The Rest of Her Life (**** SELECTION, Nov/Dec 2007), While I'm Falling (2009), and The Center of Everything (**** Sept/ Oct 2003). Here, she offers a fictional take on Louise Brooks--who would become a glamorous dancer, a model, a showgirl, and a silent film star, as well as the woman who chaperoned Brooks during her early years in New York City.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: In 1922, Alice Mills, a staid married woman, accompanied the young Louise Brooks from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to study dance. Moriarty has changed Alice's name to Cora Carlisle and has created two characters that immediately clash across their generational divide. Louise, who is destined to become a trailblazing entertainment legend, chafes against the conventional attitudes of her frumpy, stolid chaperone; Cora, in turn, struggles to keep her troubled, brash teenage charge in line. But while Louise's precocious personality and headstrong ways test Cora's patience, Cora has her own dark secrets and very personal reasons for taking this unexpected journey to New York City.

Riverhead. 384 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781594487019

Cleveland Plain Dealer [EXCELLENT]

"If you are picking up this novel for the Louise Brooks connection, an iconic fame that still lingers decades after her brief but phosphorescent moment in the Hollywood firmament, know that The Chaperone is most decidedly Cora's story. ... Yet, not to worry--it is the uncelebrated life that gives this novel its poignancy and emotional richness." KIM CROW

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"Too often, the Roaring Twenties in film and fiction is reduced to its most simplistic stereotypes: flappers doing a frantic Charleston while swilling champagne, swells in roadsters speeding through a computer-generated Times Square. ... In The Chaperone, Moriarty gives us a historically detailed and nuanced portrayal of the social upheaval that spilled into every corner of American life by 1922." CAROLINE PRESTON

Entertainment Weekly [EXCELLENT]

"After a battle of wills, there's a sudden change of destiny for both women, with surprising and poignant results." SARA VILKOMERSON

New York Times [GOOD]

"While Louise pursues the relatively uninteresting goals of flirting with strangers, swilling gin (during Prohibition), and advancing her career, Cora keeps busy tugging at the reader's heart. ... The Chaperone gets better as Ms. Moriarty lets Cora grow some backbone, talk straight, and reach out for what she really wants." JANET MASLIN

NY Times Book Review [GOOD]

"Too often, the image of these women is diffused by what is happening around them, and the consensus about it: Cora's morals are knee-jerk and, from the remove of history, easy to condemn. ... Despite her built-in appeal, Louise is present in the novel mainly to serve as fodder, if not exactly inspiration, for Cora's feminist awakening." JENNY HENDRIX

CRITICAL SUMMARY

By giving Cora a moving backstory and suffusing her with kindness, warmth, and an unexpected strength, Moriarty has taken a real-life supporting character and turned her into a compelling fictional protagonist. While critics generally seemed taken with the novel's premise and its historical accuracy, not all deemed the effort a wholehearted success. The novel covers decades after the summer of 1922, but it whips through them and keeps a "genteel" tone (New York Times) even when describing dire situations. Other critics felt that Cora's awakening does not evolve naturally to the character Moriarty initially presents. Still, The Chaperone provides an entertaining look at a pivotal time by turning a true situation into an engaging story.

EXCELLENT

The Dream of the Celt

By Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

One of Latin America's leading novelists, world-renowned Peruvian author and journalist Mario Vargas Llosa rose to fame in 1963 with his first novel, The Time of the Hero, and he has remained in the literary spotlight ever since. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Dream of the Celt reimagines the life of Irish nationalist Roger Casement.

THE STORY: In 1916, Irish patriot Roger Casement, convicted of high treason, is awaiting execution in London's Pentonville prison, his chances for a reduced sentence scuttled by the release of the "Black Diaries," which contain detailed accounts of his homosexual liaisons. As the days trudge by, Casement relives his childhood in Ulster and his service as British consul in the Congo and the Amazon, where he became sickened by the brutal mistreatment of the native populations. His official reports exposed the abuse and earned him a knighthood. His vehement anticolonialism, however, turned him against England, and his attempt to gain Irish freedom with the help of the Kaiser during World War I led to his final undoing.

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 368 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780374143466

Independent (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"In this extraordinary historical novel, Mario Vargas Llosa peels away Casement's mask to reveal an astonishing, mutating destiny. ... Vargas Llosa's literary realism seems so natural, with no lyrical outbursts, no pointless cleverness." JASON WILSON

Miami Herald [EXCELLENT]

"Vargas Llosa is a masterful writer, and in this book he plays straight realism. The story is full of historical detail, though not by any means tediously so." ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ

NPR [EXCELLENT]

"In this novel, thick with carefully researched detail, the reader may find the going sometimes as tough as Casement's own trek across the difficult terrain of the Belgian Congo. But the portrait of this neurotic homosexual human rights investigator rewards you for every page you push through." ALAN CHEUSE

Guardian (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"There are a fair number of undramatised biographical passages, which make for bumpy reading, even if one takes a latitudinarian position about the role of information in novelistic prose. Once the reader is past these, however, this epic and often poetic novel delivers powerfully, giving a more rounded and authentic sense of one person's inner life and complexities than many biographies." GILES FODEN

NY Times Book Review [EXCELLENT]

"The Dream of the Celt, felicitously and faithfully translated by Edith Grossman, feels anomalous when contrasted with the rest of Vargas Llosa's vast, pliable oeuvre; it's unusually straightforward and information-packed. ... It may not have been necessary, however, to defend all of Casement's decisions in order to applaud his great and wrongly overlooked contribution to the quest for human dignity." LIESL SCHILLINGER

Telegraph (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"While the novel is often absorbing, its shifts in chronology are at times laboured, and the dialogue correspondingly creaky. ... The subject of Casement's homosexuality is delicately handled, however, as Vargas Llosa seeks to cast doubt on the authenticity of the so-called 'Black Diaries', in which Casement supposedly chronicled his furtive gay encounters." IAN THOMSON

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel [GOOD]

"What he doesn't ever fully do is bring Casement to life. Celt is a welcome reminder that our heroes are invariably more complex than we might think. But its external, cinematic exploration of this particular hero doesn't burrow deep enough to imagine how or why." MIKE FISCHER

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Vargas Llosa's sprawling, elegiac novel follows the historical record closely but uses fiction to reimagine Casement's life outside of biography's guesswork and history's rational arguments. Vargas Llosa maintains firm control of his plot, setting, and characters, and the exploitation and violence that Casement encounters make for disturbing reading. A few critics cited some awkward chronological transitions and an overabundance of historical detail in some sections, but only the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concluded that Vargas Llosa never manages to bring Casement to life. The general consensus was that Vargas Llosa does justice to Casement's memory and may help to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation. "Had Vargas Llosa not won the Nobel the month this novel appeared in Spanish," claims the Independent, "it may have won the prize for him."

EXCELLENT

The Red House

By Mark Haddon

In English novelist, poet, and children's writer Mark Haddon's award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (****Sept/Oct 2003), a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome investigates the death of a neighborhood dog. The Red House is his third adult novel, after A Spot of Bother (**** Nov/Dec 2006).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: Richard is a wealthy Edinburgh radiologist with a brand new second wife and a sullen stepdaughter. His estranged sister, Angela, is a busy school teacher with three children and a husband neck deep in a tumultuous office affair. After their mother's death, the two 40-something siblings and their families gather for a one-week holiday in a farmhouse in a sleepy town near the Welsh border in an attempt to rekindle their relationships. But under the strain of a forced vacation, each family member must deal with his or her grief; resentments, old and new; and deceptions that threaten to tear this messy, dysfunctional family even further apart even as they hope to repair past grievances.

Doubleday. 272 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780385535779

Dallas News [EXCELLENT]

"Haddon tells his story with warmth and humor, and incidents that might seem threadbare in the hands of a lesser author come to life in these pages. ... [A] fun, fast-paced read from one of our finest storytellers." TED GIOIA

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"I was tempted at first to regard this method [rapidly shifting narrative points of view among eight different narrators] as a stunt, a step beyond the brief craze for plural first-person narrators that we saw last year, and honestly, it's a bit of work, particularly before you've got all eight people clearly in mind. But the voices are so distinct that once you can keep up, the effect is symphonic." RON CHARLES

Entertainment Weekly [EXCELLENT]

"The story unfolds from all eight characters' points of view, a tricky strategy that pays off, letting Haddon dig convincingly into all of the failures, worries, and weaknesses that they can't leave behind during this pause in their lives. ... Haddon captures the way good intentions so often lead to botched conversations about the things that really matter." ROB BRUNNER

Guardian (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"Haddon achieves a remarkable melange of streams of consciousness, snatches of books, music, TV, private thoughts, lists, letters, all intertwined with sharply observed vignettes of everyday banality, soaring flights of description and odd bursts of heavy-handed portentousness. ... The Red House is his darkest work yet, but it's not cynical." CAROL BIRCH

USA Today [EXCELLENT]

"[W]ith his simple setup, Haddon delivers a story of remarkable complexity, exploring the rich interior lives of his characters. ... Most impressive is the ambitious structure of this novel: The characters' viewpoints shift not by chapter (a familiar stylistic device), but on every page, paragraph by paragraph." CARMELA CIURARU

CRITICAL SUMMARY

As in his earlier novels, Haddon portrays his characters with great sympathy and honesty. Whether we like it or not, we recognize our own families in his stories. What makes The Red House unusual is Haddon's decision to narrate it from all the eight characters' perspectives, which shift from paragraph to paragraph. While a risky move, this technique pays off: readers can delve into the complex, rich interior lives of the characters--from teenagers to those experiencing midlife crises. The structure can take a little while to get used to, but patient readers will find a subdued, thoughtful, and, above all, recognizable story.

GOOD

Gold

Chris Cleave, the best-selling author of Incendiary (**** SELECTION Nov/Dec 2005) and Little Bee (**** SELECTION May/ June 2009), focuses on the love/hate friendship of world-class sprint cyclists battling for a spot on the 2012 British Olympic team.

THE STORY: Friends and competitors since they were 19, Kate and Zoe, now 32, face off against each other as they train for their last chances to win Olympic gold. Their athletic successes, however, mask their own personal dramas and challenges. Zoe is brash, fiercely competitive, and strikingly beautiful, with the endorsements to prove it--but she remains haunted by her sexual secrets. Kate, while more talented, is less competitive, though it was she who won the heart of Jack, a fellow Olympic cyclist for whom both women had fallen. When Kate and Jack's eight-year-old daughter Sophie, who suffers from leukemia, takes a turn for the worse just as the Olympics approach, the pressure mounts--and they all face a terrible choice. Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781451672725

Miami Herald [EXCELLENT]

"It's an adrenaline-fueled drama about winning and losing, in the velodrome and daily existence, an explosive exploration of the cost of success and the way sports competition can spill unhappily into life. It will force you to reconsider the definition of 'victory,' and it will leave you breathless, like you've just finished a race without all that training and exertion." CONNIE OGLE

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

USA Today [EXCELLENT]

"With original observations on almost every page, Gold sprints past the usual public-relations puffery about dreams of gold and steely determination. ... [J]ust as he did with the cycling scenes, Cleave presents Sophie's disease and how it affects her and her parents with unique insights that are startling and moving." DEIRDRE DONAHUE

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel [EXCELLENT]

"Gold feels like a marriage of Wide World of Sports with Lifetime television; that's meant as a compliment. ... If medals were given for writing scenes of anguished decision-making, Cleave would have as many golds as Eric Heiden." JIM HIGGINS

Washington Post [GOOD]

"Gold has its share of dross. But, just as with those old Warner Bros. melodramas, the unabashed energy behind the enterprise can transform your skepticism into a grudging respect and enjoyment." LOUIS BAYARD

Entertainment Weekly [FAIR]

"[W]hat rankles most is using a child's leukemia as a tear-jerking distraction. ... Ultimately Cleave pants so hard while describing what it's like to pedal a bike and how difficult it is to succeed simultaneously as a parent and as a champion that we don't quite feel elated--just exhausted." LISA SCHWARZBAUM

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The golden timing can't be denied: Gold comes out just as the world prepares for the 2012 London Olympics and offers a story of competition and friendship that seems TV-ready. Critics generally agree that this novel captures the "weird, insular, and fascinating world of top-tier Olympic speed cycling" (USA Today) and that Cleave succeeds in creating exciting racing scenes while also keeping his characters vibrant off the track. They disagree, however, about his handling of Sophie's critical illness as well as the success of his prose, which can be overwrought. Gold is not Cleave's best work to date, but the author is passionate about his characters and the personal and professional conflicts they face.

ALSO BY THE AUTHOR

LITTLE BEE (2009): While on an ill-advised holiday to Nigeria to repair their failing marriage, Andrew Rourke, a journalist, and his wife, Sarah, editor of a fashion magazine, meet Little Bee, a 16-year-old girl, and her older sister, Kindness. The girls are running for their lives from the men who have ransacked their village for oil. Even after suffering an act of unimaginable violence that day, the participants can hardly imagine how their lives will intertwine--and be irrevocably changed (**** May/June 2009).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

GOOD

How Should a Person Be?

A Novel from Life By Sheila Heti

Canadian writer Sheila Heti is the author of Ticknor (2005), a novel loosely based on the friendship between historian William Hickling Prescott and his biographer, as well as other books. An editor for the Believer, her work has also appeared in McSweeney's, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: Heti uses various stylistic forms--including e-mails, letters, a five-act play, and transcripts from recorded conversations--to narrate one woman's search for the meaning of life. Sheila, a young Jewish playwright living in Toronto, has a failed marriage behind her and an impossible-to-write play before her. Adrift, purpose-less, with little idea of the person she's meant to be, she experiences an identity crisis. She travels with friends, including the painter Margaux and the sexual deviant Israel, all the while asking herself how we should be as artists, workers, thinkers, lovers, friends, and, not least of all, members of the human race.

Henry Holt. 320 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780805094725

San Francisco Chronicle [EXCELLENT]

"Brutally honest and stylistically inventive, cerebral and sexy, this 'novel from life' employs a grab bag of literary forms and narrative styles on its search for truth. ... With this deceptively simple question as her compass, Heti takes us on a meandering and entertaining exploration of the big questions, rousting aesthetic, moral, religious and ethical concerns most novels wouldn't touch. " MICHAEL DAVID LUKAS

NY Times Book Review [GOOD]

"[T]he novel shares with much reality television a kind of episodic aimlessness, and a focus on young, self-involved characters who spend a lot of time thinking about how they look to other people. ... I do not think this novel knows everything, but Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of." DAVID HAGLUND

Wall Street Journal [GOOD]

"The provincial narrowness of the world inhabited by Sheila and her friends will irk many readers. And for all her book's humor, it is not clear that Ms. Heti grasps the full irony of her character's determination to improvise her identity while appearing to us as so recognizably a type, namely the contemporary artist-hipster. Still, How Should a Person Be? reveals a talented young voice of a still inchoate generation." KAY HYMOWITZ

New Yorker [GOOD]

"Heti's book has a pleasingly (sometimes irritatingly) free, formless, and autobiographical atmosphere. ... It's a shame that Heti's writing, normally pellucid, is so loose here." JAMES WOOD

Oregonian [FAIR]

"[A] frustrating book, mainly because its narrator, Sheila, is such a maddening presence. ... [I]t's tricky to avoid exasperating readers when your narrator's big art project is herself." BECKY OHLSEN

CRITICAL SUMMARY

How Should a Person Be?, another highly original work from a young, talented writer, is partly a postmodern, semiautobiographical novel, partly a confessional, and partly a self-help manual. But critics weren't sure that the book, which some compared to the HBO series Girls, worked on all of those levels-or at all. The San Francisco Chronicle loved the story, describing it as "full of charm, wit, [and] subtle surprises." Other reviewers wondered why anyone would care to read about such a shallow, narcissistic character as Sheila. Although Heti's willingness to ask difficult questions piqued the interest of some reviewers, her disjointed (if unique) narrative, the protagonist's general aimlessness, and the lack of a strong plot alienated others. We recommend How Should a Person Be? if experimental novels that ask big, brave, and unanswerable questions are your thing.

GOOD

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

By Stephen L. Carter

Yale Law School Professor Stephen L. Carter has published four previous novels, including his New York Times best-selling debut The Emperor of Ocean Park (*** Nov/Dec 2002) and several works of nonfiction with a focus on law, politics, and religion.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: What if President Lincoln hadn't been assassinated? In Carter's alternate history, Lincoln survives the gunshot wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth. But two years later, the nation is deeply troubled. An embittered South seeks revenge; an outraged North bristles over Lincoln's munificent Reconstruction; and congressmen on both sides, scandalized by the autocratic liberties he took during the war, have voted to impeach him. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Abigail Canner, a brilliant young black woman who aspires to become a lawyer, takes a job as a clerk at the law firm representing Lincoln during the proceedings. When one of Lincoln's lawyers is stabbed to death, Abigail discovers evidence of a far-reaching conspiracy to rig the trial.

Knopf. 528 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307272638

Miami Herald [GOOD]

"True to his earlier works, such as The Emperor of Ocean Park and Jericho's Fall, this tale is a rich blend of murder mystery, legal thriller, courtroom drama and period piece featuring some of the historical figures of the time. ... Some readers may find the plot too convoluted, but that's balanced by the careful details of the period and a varied cast of the real and the imagined." FRANK DAVIES

Seattle Times [EXCELLENT]

"Carter has fleshed out his latest effort with enough supporting characters and alternate-history 'mayhem,' to borrow his word, to stretch the book's length to a whopping 516 pages. But his cool style gives the novel a breezy accessibility, even as he delves into the socially and politically troublesome aspects of a war that pitted 'brother against brother,' as the saying goes." TYRONE BEASON

Washington Post [EXCELLENT]

"With an encyclopedic command of period detail and the courage to alter it whenever he wants, Carter has created an entertaining story rooted in the legal, political and racial conflicts of 19th-century America. ... Melodramatic cliffhangers mar the endings of too many chapters, and the Great Reveal drags on for far too many pages only because the mystery that Abigail must solve is ridiculously--almost comically--convoluted." RON CHARLES

Oregonian [GOOD]

"Secret numerical codes, a mysterious packet of letters signed with a pseudonym, unexplained disappearances, convenient fires and more tumble forth in a pattern that may have seemed clear on the author's whiteboard flowchart but accumulate into a frustrating jumble on the page. ... Despite its weaknesses as story, though, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln remains a fascinating hypothetical and an impressively imagined look at the legal, political and personal ramifications of a time in American history when lofty principles and petty concerns battled for pride of place in the national consciousness." MARC MOHAN

Los Angeles Times [FAIR]

"The result feels a bit like the Civil War itself--a needlessly long, Drawn-out affair. ... An interesting premise is ground down through grim workmanship. Like required class reading, one endures rather than enjoys much of it." JONATHAN SHAPIRO

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel [POOR]

"[The] novel is hijacked by an improbable and poorly written melodrama, in which characters function as easily disposed plot devices rather than developing into thoughtful, genuinely conflicted citizens for whom answers to such questions might actually matter. ... To top it off, Carter's plot is so improbable and convoluted that even though I took pages of notes, I ultimately found myself seconding [Abigail's fellow law clerk] Jonathan, who figures that 'if Abigail could not get her capacious mind around the whole story, he knew there was little point in his trying.' " MIKE FISCHER

USA Today [POOR]

"Though Carter begins with an exciting premise--Lincoln has survived John Wilkes Booth's bullet, only to be pulled down into the muck of partisan politics--this is a dreary, endless book, without momentum, intrigue or a character to linger in the mind beyond the last page." CHARLES FINCH

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The critics diverged so much in their opinions of Carter's latest that one wonders if they all read the same book. While the Washington Post applauded The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln as a "thoughtful new thriller," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel labeled it a "disappointing dud of a book," and USA Today called it "a disaster." Ac cording to various reviewers, the novel's plot is bracing or dull, its characters fully animated or two-dimensional, and its prose crisp or tortured. The critics did agree on two things: the mystery that Abigail must unravel is incredibly convoluted, and Carter's impressive command of period detail brings 19th-century Washington, D.C., vividly to life. However, with so much dissent, readers may prefer to pick up one of Carter's earlier, less contentious novels.

GOOD

Skios

By Michael Frayn

Prolific British novelist, playwright, and Chekhov translator Michael Frayn won both the Whitbread Prize and the Common-wealth Writers' Prize for Fiction for his 2002 novel Spies. He has also received multiple awards for his plays, which include the celebrated farce Noises Off (1982) and the historical drama Copenhagen (1998).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE STORY: Handsome young playboy Oliver Fox arrives on the Greek island of Skios for a romantic rendezvous when he accidentally picks up a suitcase belonging to Dr. Norman Wilfred. He spies a pretty blonde holding a sign with Dr. Wilfred's name on it and, suddenly souring on his original plans, decides on a lark to become Dr. Wilfred. While Fox is whisked away to the prestigious Fred Toppler Foundation's annual conference as its keynote speaker, the real Dr. Wilfred, a middleaged, world-renowned expert on "the scientific management of science," sleepily climbs into Fox's waiting taxi, which maroons him at a remote villa, the site of the younger man's tryst. Will Fox succeed in his impersonation, or will his prank be exposed? Metropolitan Books. 272 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780805095494

Entertainment Weekly [EXCELLENT]

"[A] masterfully crafted farce. ... [Frayn] is so devilishly good at clicking the pieces into place that watching him build his contraption is its own entertainment, compensating for the ultimately minor heft of the story and its gentle satiric aims." LISA SCHWARZBAUM

NY Times Book Review [EXCELLENT]

"So much of his new novel, Skios, is so expertly written and such genuine fun, it seems ill-mannered to quibble about the dubious premise. Or the fact that the ending of a farce is usually as satisfying as the third hot fudge sundae, because the only logical outcome to rampant absurdity is even more rampant absurdity. But between start and finish, Frayn ... builds his puzzle so painstakingly and tells his story so engagingly, you want to jump in his lap and build a nest for winter." ALEX WITCHEL

Telegraph (UK) [EXCELLENT]

"That he's incapable of writing a line that isn't beautifully cadenced certainly does no harm to his case. Like Oliver Fox, he's a slick operator, able to keep all those plates in the air--just." ANTHONY CUMMINS

Independent (UK) [GOOD]

"The accumulated improbabilities stack up like a quivering house of cards, castled for laughs but ultimately lacking in emotional foundations. ... If you suspend your disbelief at the title page you'll no doubt chuckle along to the end, but somehow that doesn't seem to be enough of a result from a writer of Frayn's standing." CHRISTIAN HOUSE

New York Times [GOOD]

"Its many coincidences often feel entirely stage-managed, and both the setup for the novel's conclusion and the ending itself are lumbering and forced. Its heroes too feel two-dimensional, like characters in a sketchily drawn play, desperately in need of talented actors to flesh out their personalities." MICHIKO KAKUTANI

Seattle Times [GOOD]

"While Skios flirts with tricky questions of identities assumed and identities lost, it operates in pure slapstick mode. ... [T]he shenanigans never quite soar as intended in this brittle comedy." MICHAEL UPCHURCH

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Some critics, citing Frayn's superb writing skills and sense of humor, were able to suspend their disbelief; others found the novel entertaining but couldn't get past its flimsy premise and strangely flat protagonists, "like characters in a sketchily drawn play, desperately in need of talented actors to flesh out their personalities" (New York Times). However, all agreed that Skios is stuffed with witty commentary--in particular, a delicious send-up of the conference's pretentious, pseudointellectual attendees--and laugh-out-loud moments. Readers in search of something light and pleasant may agree with the Telegraph that Skios is a "slickly written comedy." The rest will likely side with the New York Times: "All in all, an amusing but second rate novel by one of Britain's funniest writers."
COPYRIGHT 2012 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:"Alif the Unseen", "The Coldest Night: A Novel of Love and War", "HHhH", "The World Without You", "Capital", "The Chaperone", "The Dream of the Celt", "The Red House", "Gold", "How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life", "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" and "Skios"
Publication:Bookmarks
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2012
Words:8150
Previous Article:New books guide.
Next Article:A Hologram for the King.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters