Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

September Book Review: People Collide by Isle McElroy

Today is the release day for People Collide, Isle McElroy’s anticipated follow-up to The Atmospherians, and we’re celebrating with this review of the novel by Jeannine Burgdorf! “Why does anyone get married?” Burgdorf asks at the beginning of the review. The book, she writes, “is a richly layered inquiry into intimacy and alienation that, as literature should, offers more questions than answers, and crafts a surprising and resonant narrative.” Read the full review at the link below.

Why does anyone get married? Love and commitment probably come to mind for most but for Eli and Elizabeth Harding, two Americans living in Bulgaria, the answer is harder to decipher. People Collide, Isle McElroy’s follow-up to The Atmospherians, is a richly layered inquiry into intimacy and alienation that, as literature should, offers more questions than answers, and crafts a surprising and resonant narrative.

Elizabeth, the recipient of a literary fellowship and international praise, is farther along than Eli in her writing career. Eli is depressed and worn down by his self-proclaimed lack of talent and ambition. One day they switch bodies, though we only get inside the perspective of Eli as Elizabeth because Elizabeth (in Eli’s body) has left without a trace. And there are no answers about the how or the why of the switch, but this didn’t feel like a dodge.

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September Book Review: The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

Today in our Book Review series, we dig into the newest release from one of our all-time favorite writers, Lauren Groff! Groff was our first anthology judge almost thirteen years ago, and we’ve been overjoyed following her career in the years since. The Vaster Wilds is Groff’s fifth novel, and according to reviewer Kathryn Ordiway, is “mythology as only a woman can tell it—one that attempts to tackle the implications of supremacy and place.” Read the full review at the link below.

In Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wilds, the author gives us the American myth in its truest form: not the victor, not the conqueror, not the pillager or the plunderer, but a woman, a girl really, brought to this new world against her will. This is mythology as only a woman can tell it—one that attempts to tackle the implications of supremacy and place.

Very little happens in this novel and yet everything happens. In flashback, The Vaster Wilds is the story of a girl with little control over her life, who is fortunate to find a home as a servant to a wealthy family, until that luck turns and she finds herself traveling to the New World. She exercises control in the ways that she can, and the great joy of her life is caring for the child Bess, daughter of the girl’s mistress.

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August Book Review: Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

In our final book review of August, reviewer Lauren Finkle digs into Emma Donoghue’s new Learned by Heart, a novel based on the true story of Anne Lister and Eliza Raine. “To give [Raine] a voice, in the absence of a large historical record or a personal diary like Anne’s, is one of Learned by Heart’s biggest successes,” Finkle writes. “Learned by Heart is a brilliant novel, and one that’s especially resonant as the LGBTQ+ community is being increasingly attacked and endangered.” Read the full review at the link below.

“And I ask myself why the present tense is the only one that matters. Can’t the past be a sort of present too, if I plunge into memory and swim like a fish? Since every moment is fleeting, gone as soon as noted, so perhaps past, present, and future are all thin slices of reality, all flickering, all equally (in some sense) true.”

Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue is a novel based on the real relationship between Eliza Raine, an orphaned heiress sent to England from India to live with strangers, and Anne Lister, an diarist who is known today for her five-million-word coded journals that frankly depict her romantic relationships with women.

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August Book Review: The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins

Continuing our book reviews this month, editor Cole Meyer examines The Great Transition, the debut novel from former Short Story Award winner Nick Fuller Googins, out today from Atria Books! “Climate fiction, political thriller, and a family story all wrapped up into one,” he writes, “The Great Transition… is a triumph of voice and vision.” This is a debut you won’t want to miss!

In The Great Transition, Nick Fuller Googins’s thrilling debut novel, the question is not how to solve the climate crisis—it’s how to stay vigilant. Sixteen years have passed since Day Zero—that’s the day Earth’s net carbon emissions reached zero—and to some, society now looks like a utopia built on a philosophy of mutual aid: Private corporations are no more, replaced by co-ops; two weeks of civil service each year is mandatory for adults. The world looks different when there’s a common goal. But some, like Kristina Vargas, are not at peace. History repeats itself when we let our guard down, she knows, when we let good enough become the end goal.

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August Book Review: The Prumont Method by Trevor J. Houser

Reviewer Suzy Eynon reviews The Prumont Method by Trevor J. Houser, out now from Unsolicited Press, in our next book review for August! In The Prumont Method, Eynon writes, “Houser has assembled with these pieces a cohesive, touching, and clever narrative, with a relatable anti-hero, which is just as heartbreaking as it is funny.” Read the full review at the link below.

The Prumont Method by Trevor J. Houser doesn’t gloss over the topic of gun violence or relegate it to the background to tell a different story. This novel, Houser’s second, places gun violence front and center, dropping the reader into the protagonist’s story with the opening line, “When did I predict my first mass shooting?” In short chapters that sometimes read as entries by a highly aware and darkly humorous diarist, Roger Prumont, creator of the Method, reveals in time that he has recently suffered marital difficulties, left his career in regional healthcare marketing, and drives around the country while he attempts to interpret the Method’s latest predictions before the next mass shooting. The Method is an enigmatic mathematical theorem of “thirty to forty-odd pages” predicting approximately when and where a mass shooting will occur within the United States. The exact operations of this method remained illusory to me as a reader which benefited the book in that I didn’t need to worry over how it worked to accept its role in the narrative.

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August Book Review: Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo

In our second book review of August, Jeannine Burgdorf combs through Elizabeth Acevedo’s remarkable debut novel. She writes that Family Lore is “impossible to put down,” and incorporates Acevedo’s sensibilities as a poet throughout. Read the full review at the link below.

In Family Lore, the first novel by poet and YA author Elizabeth Acevedo, desires exist not only to be satisfied, but for their own sake, whether they can be quenched or not. But that does not mean that the women of the Marte family, having quenched their thirsts, are freed of desires, disappointments, blessings, and curses. In fact, each of their complex encounters with their own desires drives the propulsive force of the novel and makes Acevedo’s debut impossible to put down.

The novel focuses on the sisters of who grew up in the Dominican Republic countryside and, at different times, moved to New York City: Mathilde, Flor, Pastora, and Camila, as well as cousins Ona, Flor’s daughter, and Yadi, Pastora’s daughter. Each has a unique gift, but the novel is framed by Flor’s gift to foretell death from her dreams. At age seventy, Flor has seen her own death and plans to host a living wake for herself.

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August Book Review: The Lookback Window by Kyle Dillon Hertz

In our first book review of the month, reviewer Joanna Acevedo dives into The Lookback Window, a debut by Kyle Dillon Hertz, out now from Simon & Schuster. “Through a miasma of sex, drugs, and simply gorgeous writing, the love child of Denis Johnson and Lana Del Rey,” Acevedo writes, “Hertz has created a deeply memorable tale of a man on the search for healing.” Read the full review at the link below.

The Lookback Window, Kyle Dillon Hertz’s forthcoming novel from Simon & Schuster, pulls no punches. When I read early drafts in a workshop led by Jeffrey Eugenides in early 2020, right before the pandemic would completely change the way we write, work, and workshop, I immediately knew Hertz had something rare and special. The pages were dazzling and jewel-like, Hertz’s prose stunning from the first lines: “The sky was as blue as any other perfect conspiracy.” Our little workshop was shaken by Hertz’s hedonistic, magical, and terrifying world, but we were also fascinated and addicted, much like his narrator, Dylan. In the next few years, Hertz would take these pages and create something truly revolutionary.

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Two Summer Book Reviews: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai & The Blurry Years by Eleanor Kriseman

There is nothing like a good book in the summertime. Today, we present reviews of two recent summer releases. First up, Will Preston reviews our Volume VII judge Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel The Great Believers. Preston writes: “With this, her fourth book, Makkai has crafted a deeply compassionate character study that is also a genuine, one-more-chapter-before-bed pageturner, a sweeping historical saga that never loses sight of its emotional core.”

Next, Katharine Coldiron reviews Eleanor Kriseman’s debut novel The Blurry Years. Coldiron writes, of the book’s narrator: “Callie is a heroine to remember, a perfect personification of the era of adolescence when decisions were easily made and long regretted. She doesn’t reflect much on her behavior, or offer evidence that she understands why she acts so self-destructively. This isn’t a negative quality; it’s another piece of the book’s authenticity.”

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai’s magnificent new novel, opens at a funeral. More specifically, it opens at a funeral party. The actual funeral, for a young man named Nico Marcus, is unfolding concurrently twenty miles north: it’s 1985, and Nico is dead from AIDS, and his family has made it abundantly clear that his lover and tight-knit circle of friends are unwelcome at the church where he is being laid to rest.

About halfway through the night, one of Nico’s closest friends, Yale Tishman, is overcome with emotion and retreats upstairs to collect himself. When he emerges, some thirty minutes later, he is greeted by a surreal sight: the party has been abruptly abandoned. Half-drunk bottles and cocktail glasses are scattered throughout the room; the vinyl record spins in silence. Both doors are dead-bolted.

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The Blurry Years by Eleanor Kriseman

If you’re a reader, you can run, and you can hide, but you can’t escape the coming-of-age story. It’s everywhere, a part of every era, a constant of literature as immovable as Hemingway himself. The only new ground is generational: the story varies depending upon the age of the person telling it. For Millennials, the variation arrives (at last) in the storyteller. Women, queer people, and people of color are telling their stories at last, which means that the coming-of-age genre has some new life in it for the first time in decades.

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February Book Review: Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Today, we are pleased to feature a review of Self-Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon’s debut novel, which came out earlier this month. Our reviewer Tessa Yang writes: “With a vividly rendered setting, an emotionally turbulent narrative, and a spine-chilling dose of the paranormal, Self-Portrait with Boy has me dwelling on the dark side of creative expression and eager to see what Rachel Lyon produces next.”

Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

“I’ll tell you how it started. With a simple, tragic accident. The click of a shutter and a grown man’s beast-like howl.” With these opening lines, Rachel Lyon pulls us into a fast-paced and haunting narrative that dramatizes the friction between professional success and personal loyalty. When does art become exploitative? To what does the emerging artist owe her allegiance? To community? To love? To her own aspirations, and nothing else?

Lyon’s narrator, Lu Rile, is a recent art school grad living in Brooklyn in the early 90’s. She’s got big dreams and no money—a familiar combination, but rest assured, Lyon strips the starving artist cliché of all its tired romanticism. Real estate developers are closing in on Lu’s building, a ramshackle warehouse whose artist residents have been squatting for years. The landlord’s nowhere to be found. As Lu’s expenses swell (the tenants have hired a lawyer to file a suit for legal residency, and her father needs eye surgery), she finds herself working at a ritzy day school, a 24-hour Photo, and a health food store, and stealing from the latter because she still can’t afford groceries. Read more.

October Book Review: Catapult by Emily Fridlund

October was made for curling up with a good book. And, lucky for us, there are many awesome debuts hitting the shelves this month. Today, we are proud to share our own Cole Meyer’s review of Emily Fridlund’s debut collection Catapult. Meyer writes: “. . . the characters of Catapult seem to be less certain of themselves, unable to articulate the source of their own discomfort. This is where Fridlund truly thrives. She utilizes such razor-sharp prose to elucidate this real, human inability to vocalize our dissatisfaction or unease.” Read on.

Catapult by Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund’s collection Catapult, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, burrows under the skin to reveal what hurts the most. It shines a light on the ugly truths in relationships, discovers all the ways in which its characters aren’t quite compatible with one another and forces them into (often quiet) confrontations. This collection is as intelligent as it is incisive. I was continually impressed by the depth of Fridlund’s emotional well; it seemed as though every other sentence was another bit of wisdom, and the sentences in between only added further depth.

Catapult holds no punches in its opening line: “My wife could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating.” Fridlund lets you know right up front the kind of blunt, exigent stories that are in store. The narrator of “Expecting,” the collection’s opening story, continues: “It is easy to be wrong about a person you are used to.” Read more.

Summer Book Reviews: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons & Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Today, we are pleased to bring you reviews of two recent novels to add to your summer reading list, pronto! First, Laura Spence-Ash reviews What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, a debut that just hit the shelves this week. In Spence-Ash’s words: “Clemmons has written a novel that doesn’t quite feel like a novel. She nicely plays with form to convey content; the book seems at times like a memoir and, at others, like a collection of minute essays. …The blurring of boundaries between genres does much to underscore this sense of never quite belonging to any one thing.”

Next, Kim Winternheimer reviews Gabe Habash’s debut novel Stephen Florida, which follows the mental workings of a college wrestler who is fiercely dedicated to his sport. Winternheimer writes: “Stephen grapples with his place in the world outside of wrestling and because we have so much access to his thoughts and feelings, what starts as the pursuit of a lofty sports goal is in equal measure a journey for sanity, for balance, and for a life filled with meaning.” Read on!

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Much of What We Lose, an innovative and engaging debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, is about being stuck in the in-between. The protagonist, Thandi, is of mixed-race, with an American father and a South African mother. Although Thandi is brought up in Philadelphia, her mother’s ties to her home country are strong, and the family visits most summers. Over the course of the book, Thandi matures from a teenager to a young woman. And then Thandi’s mother dies from cancer, and she is a daughter without a mother before becoming a mother to a son. In all these instances, she interrogates each binary as well as the space in between as she tries to figure out who she is and how to move forward. Read more.



Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

Gabe Habash’s confident debut, Stephen Florida, explores the single-minded intensity behind the pursuit of your goals. The result is a fast-paced novel about sacrifice and dedication, as it follows college senior and wrestling national championship hopeful Stephen Florida in his attempt to win the 133lb weight class.

Stephen Florida is a talented wrestler at an average college, but he is exceptional in his devotion to his sport. Willing to sacrifice beyond reasonable measure, Stephen makes his commitment to wrestling a credo. The novel reads like a manifesto, leading readers into the mind of a character filled with pain (“What will make my thoughts less ugly while I wait for my turn? I live in these little chambers of dissatisfaction like a frustrated prince. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not owed anything.”), humor (“I guess because sailboating and horse jumping, kite contests, golf, those aren’t sports. Anything that needs an object or water or an animal is not a sport. Wrestling is genuine and true and real.”), and extraordinary focus (“But I don’t need to be old to know that to look back and realize you didn’t push yourself for something you loved is the greatest regret you can have”). Read more.

Book Reviews: Three Spring Debut Novels

Today, we are pleased to present reviews of three debut novels out this spring. First up, Aram Mrjoian reviews Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake, which is written from the point of view of ten-year-old Elvis Babbitt: “Rabbit Cake thus finds universal comedic truths in the face of indomitable loss, reinvigorates the sensory thrill of childhood, and reveals how familial strength can help overcome individual grief.”

Next, our reviewer Brett Beach discusses Elif Batuman’s debut novel The Idiot, which follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, as she embarks on her first year at Harvard. “Batuman’s heroine possesses the whip-smart, precise voice so many of us wish we had in our own youth. Selin blunders, yes, and fails, but who hasn’t?  The Idiot reminds us that we are not alone.”

To cap it all off, Will Preston contributes a thoughtful review of Omar El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is set in 2075, in an America undergoing a Second Civil War: “Holding true to the old adage that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, the bulk of American War’s narrative occurs in the moments between the violence, deriving its power from the physical and emotional ruin left in its wake.” Dive into these three varied and powerful spring debuts.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett


Ecosystems perpetually hang in delicate balance, as much with humans as any other species. This is perhaps one thesis of Annie Hartnett’s ebullient Rabbit Cake, a novel loaded with dark humor and self-diagnosed moroseness, but also one that bursts forth with optimism at every turn. Hartnett’s work is interested in classification to say the least, and offers genuine consideration of family dynamics that span the animal kingdom at large. Read more.



The Idiot by Elif Batuman


Elif Batuman tweets under the handle BananaKarenina—a humorous nod toward a great Russian novelist’s depiction of a woman’s dangerous tangle with love. How fitting, then, that Batuman’s strikingly funny, precisely observed first novel, The Idiot, shares its title with the work of another great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Read more.




American War by Omar El Akkad


The year is 2075. The United States, its shorelines eaten away by mega-hurricanes and rising seas, has splintered apart. Mexico has reclaimed large swathes of the southwest. The capital has relocated from Washington DC to Columbus, Ohio. And the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, enraged by a governmental ban on fossil fuels, have seceded into a Free Southern State. Read more.