Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.

Book Reviews: Two Debut Collections

Today, we bring you reviews of two important debut collections, out this past fall. First up: Alina Grabowski reviews The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George: “The Babysitter at Rest highlights the absurdity of what our own society demands from women, while analyzing the different vessels—men, food, sex—through which these demands are delivered.” Next up, Sarah Hoenicke reviews The Expense of a View by Polly Buckingham: “As the title of the book suggests, this is a collection preoccupied with people who don’t have the capital to obtain a view—either literal or figurative.” Check out these two insightful reviews.

The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George

In the first story of Jen George’s debut collection The Babysitter at Rest, a nameless genderless Guide climbs through the window of the narrator’s apartment to usher her into adulthood. “Despite your lack of intuition,” they tell her, “you may have become aware of the following changes that signal the onset of adulthood: listening to others, doubting everything you think, health problems, understanding of the limitations of time and/or life/living/the individual experience…” the list goes on. Such mounting neuroses are experienced by not only our first narrator, but by all of the female protagonists that populate George’s stories. Given the absurd circumstances surrounding these women, it’s not hard to understand the source of their anxieties. Read more.

The Expense of a View by Polly Buckingham

Our current political conversation often revolves around the financial disparities rampant in American culture. Polly Buckingham’s recent story collection, The Expense of a View, hones in on the lives most impacted by the inequalities this gaping imbalance engenders. Buckingham tells the stories of the system’s most vulnerable—the ill, the partnerless, the parentless, the addicted, the poor, the isolated—exploring what it means to try to be a “healthy” adult when life has always lacked a major component of stability. The Expense of a View won the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and was released this past fall from the University of North Texas Press.

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Book Reviews: Late Summer Debuts

Today, we are pleased to bring you reviews of two late summer debuts. First up: Adam O’Fallon Price’s The Grand Tour. This book chronicles the friendship between an established and an emerging writer as they embark on a road trip together. Pretty irresistible, right? Reviewer Brett Beach says: “The best comedic writing is used to speak to the parts of life that may be hardest to face. In The Grand Tour . . . Adam O’Fallon Price both skewers the pessimistic, narcissistic tendencies we all harbor, and suggests that no amount of mistakes or failures can truly inure a person to change.”

Second, we review One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, the debut collection from Masters Review author Dustin M. Hoffman, and winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Reviewer Augusto Corvalan writes: “With One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist Hoffman has fashioned a collection that does not stand on the strength of its individual stories so much as the cohesive world it creates and the lives it inhabits with such heartfelt honesty and understanding.”

the-grand-tour-bigThe Grand Tour by Adam O’Fallon Price

Richard Lazar, the protagonist of Adam O’Fallon Price’s debut novel The Grand Tour, is a washed-up, mid-list writer—divorced, overweight, often drunk, with most of his books out of print, and barely in contact with his grown daughter. But unexpected success arrives with the publication of his sixth book, a memoir about his service (and eventual desertion) during the Vietnam War. To capitalize on the book’s momentum, Lazar’s publishing house sends him on a book tour. The disastrous consequences of the book tour are chronicled with humorous precision and deep feeling by Price, transforming The Grand Tour from a comedic road trip novel into a meditation on the relationship between creation, desperation, and hope.

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one-hundred-knuckled-fistOne-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman

Knife pushers, diggers, painters, can pickers, snake mimes, fire chasers, thieves and ice cream men populate the stories in Dustin M. Hoffman’s One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, his debut collection from University of Nebraska Press. The book was named the winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The stories here feature men (and they are largely men) who live by their hands, who work in subdivisions, who build cookie-cutter houses. They are defined by their work, by toil and back-break. They live hardscrabble lives and are either aiming higher or sinking slowly down.

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Book Review: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Today, Cole Meyer reviews Imbolo Mbue’s notable debut novel, Behold the Dreamers. The book follows a young Cameroonian family that immigrates to the United States in the years leading up to the Great Recession. Meyer writes: “Behold the Dreamers feels as though it’s needed right now: a novel about the strife of the immigrant, often overlooked or ignored, in the midst of an influx of refugees.” Add this to your reading lists, everyone.

BEHOLD THE DREAMERSImbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers follows a Cameroonian family as they immigrate to the United States in the years before the financial collapse of 2008. This debut novel explores the complicated relationships between where we’re from and where we end up living, between love and family, sacrifice and reward.

Jende Jonga leaves Limbe, Cameroon for the US in 2004 and secures a job as a livery cab driver three years before his wife and son’s immigration. With the help of his cousin, Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an associate at Lehman Brothers. When Jende arrived in the US, at the advice of his immigration lawyer, he applied for asylum, with an invented story of persecution at the hands of his father-in-law, a plan which quickly falls apart. Jende’s wife, Neni, travels to the country on an academic visa, with hopes of becoming a pharmacist. The financial crisis is steadily approaching, but Mbue places personal road bumps for the Jongas along the way, foregrounding their struggles. Read more.

Book Review: Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null

Today, Brett Beach reviews Matthew Neill Null’s debut short story collection Allegheny Front, out last month from Sarbande books. Beach writes: “Few authors can so impressively give language to the often unspoken friendships of men, or invest such emotional weight to hunting or manual labor. In his clear affection for the land and the people of West Virginia, Null allows his characters a vocabulary both elegant and rough.” This collection, which describes the rural landscape and the animals that inhabit it with the same detail and care it gives its human characters, is the perfect summer read.

ALLEGHENY FRONTIn Allegheny Front, Matthew Neill Null’s first story collection and the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the author returns to the West Virginia territory he mined so beautifully in his thrilling first novel, Honey from the Lion. “The bolderfields, the spaces empty of people—a lonesomeness city-dwellers could never comprehend,” he writes of the setting. “Sometimes it seems you know animals more intimately than people.” In these nine stories, Null continues the work he began in his first book of unpacking the complicated relationship between man and the natural world. He approaches from alternately sympathetic, adversarial, and prophetic angles the slippery morality that arises when people are forced into the roles of predator and prey. All the while, Null adeptly evokes the West Virginia landscape, both as it is and as it used to be—“The Allegheny Mountains . . . were a series of blue lines on the horizon. This was long before the forests were scoured off the mountains and the coal chipped from their belly, before blight withered the stands of chestnut.” Prodigious in vision, and lushly evocative, Allegheny Front will undoubtedly solidify Matthew Neill Null’s reputation as one of the most ecologically and morally conscious writers working in fiction today. Read more.

Book Review: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

Today, we are pleased to review Matt Gallagher’s first novel Youngblood, which was released last month. Reviewer Jeremy Klemin writes: “Youngblood not only presents a thoughtful, nuanced picture of the Iraq war, but it is also a disquieting and incredibly thoughtful meditation on doubt and moral ambiguity.” You don’t want to miss this one.

YOUNGBLOODMatt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood was published last month by the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. Gallagher is the author of the popular and highly controversial blog-to-book Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, which chronicles his time as a soldier in 2007 and 2008. Youngblood, Gallagher’s first novel, is primarily about a soldier named Jack Porter, and his time as a lieutenant as the US occupation of Iraq is slowly drawing to a close. The novel hovers around several subjects: Porter’s experiences with his platoon; the dynamic between him and his mercurial sergeant, Chambers; and Porter’s attempts to make sense of the relationship between a local sheikh’s daughter and an enigmatic soldier named Eli Rios who passed away in 2006. If this clandestine relationship was all the book were about, it would make a fairly enjoyable read, but the novel’s true strengths lie elsewhere: Youngblood not only presents a thoughtful, nuanced picture of the Iraq War, but it is also a disquieting and incredibly thoughtful meditation on doubt and moral ambiguity.

On rare occasions, some of Gallagher’s sentences (particularly at the beginnings of chapters) are at odds with the rest of his otherwise literary-conversational approach; sentences like, “The days of rage returned to Ashuriyah underneath a strawberry cream sky” can feel overwritten next to the lucidity of his prose elsewhere. The novel is not particularly short (340 pages, give or take), but Gallagher’s writing still manages to feel economical; all of his sentences have been carefully wrought. Dust jacket comparisons to Hemingway are probably a bit premature, but there are semblances in how both utilize negative space. Like in Hemingway’s work, the most piercing moments in Gallagher’s Youngblood exist between the spaces of what has been said, in what is implied. After an ill-conceived order goes horribly wrong and an Iraqi officer (and friend of Porter’s) loses his legs and a US soldier loses an eye, Porter blankly explains that after the fact, he spent the rest of the night watching movies on his laptop. A few hours after multiple Iraqi civilians are killed because they failed to stop their sedan fast enough, Porter reflects on the tragedy: “The forever glare of the dead driver had lingered, but I shook free of it, along with paranoid thoughts of the soldiers in Karbala who were electrocuted to death in a KBR shower trailer like this one. Then I shampooed my hair.” Brilliant contrasts like these are scattered throughout the book. They highlight the absurdity of daily life in the face of horror better than any longwinded reflection could. Gallagher frequently nods to the bureaucracy of war, but prefers a quiet, muted frustration as opposed to the bitter irony of somebody like Joseph Heller.

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Book Review: The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer

Today, we review Ashley Farmer’s first novella, The Farmacist, out this month from Jellyfish Highway Press. We are huge fans of Ashley Farmer’s stories and poems, and we love her collection Beside Myself, so we were thrilled to review her first longer form work. Based on the Facebook game Farm Town, this book is comprised of sixty-one varied chapters written in a style that is all Farmer’s own. This novella is not to be missed. 

THE FARMACISTThe Farmacist, Ashley Farmer’s first novella, was published this month by Jellyfish Highway Press. The book focuses on Farm Town, a Facebook game that was a precursor to the more well known Farmville. It consists of sixty-one chapters, probably better described as meditations: they are coherent in themselves, but still connect to the novella more broadly. Indeed, Farmer’s experience with flash fiction and poetry is fairly obvious here: the chapters, occasionally abstract and inching toward fantastical, are powerful demonstrations of her ability to get a point across economically. The fractured, disjointed format helps to illuminate a number of disconnects that Farmer seems to be working with: the distance between our real selves and our online selves, the disintegration of the American dream, and perhaps most of all, the lack a clear distinction between the rural and the urban.

Following in the footsteps of literary speculative fiction writers, Farmer repeatedly questions the distinction between the natural and the manmade. In the novella, she is able to routinely alternate between genuine rural imagery and the computerized pastoral that comprises Farm Town: “I’m exiting through the field of wheat. I’m scratching the head of each well-tempered sheep as it grazes forever on my tender patch of lawn.Elsewhere, the distinction between the “real” and the computerized is often subtle; Farmer’s work demands constant attention. Likewise, in chapters like “Overheard in the Market Place,” there is no delineation, the situation Farmer describes is applicable to both the real and the virtual. Parallels with Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are difficult to avoid here, especially between the tenderness with which the protagonists of both works care for their mechanized livestock. The extent to which we invest ourselves emotionally in things that aren’t real is generally grounds for well-deserved derision, but Farmer seems to cast an empathic eye toward her narrator, a young female ostensibly from a farming family. Although Farmer’s narrator is one of the few constants throughout the novel, her presence is all but lost in some of the more opaque chapters. Instead of unilaterally condemning our capacity for being distracted, Farmer is able to probe what the ramifications of these distractions are, and how they sever our relationships with others. The density of her work follows Chekhov’s old dictum that nothing be wasted; her choices are deliberate. The compacted abstractions don’t make for the easiest read, but it’s apparent that her decisions are anything but arbitrary.

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Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Today, we are thrilled to review the first short story collection from acclaimed author Rebecca Makkai. These stories tackle everything from reality dating shows to the repercussions of the death of an elephant, all in stunning prose. Laura Spence-Ash writes: “Makkai is fascinated by causality and connection, how things are inevitable, how every moment leads to the next.” This summer book is not to be missed.

MUSIC FOR WARTIMERebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime is a masterful collection of short stories, the author’s intelligence and wit shining through in beautiful and insightful prose. Written over a period of twelve years, most of these stories have been published elsewhere, including four stories chosen for Best American Short Stories. Makkai is primarily interested in searching for meaning, creating connections and investigating causality. The stories consider and question their subjects from many different angles; the best stories in this collection leave those questions unanswered. These are the stories that ask to be read multiple times, stories that resonate and haunt.

Makkai has published two novels—The Borrower (her debut in 2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014)—and a novelist’s sensibility infuses this collection. The stories are big in scope and consideration; each story thoroughly investigates a particular place and time. In “The November Story,” the narrator deals with the dissolution of a relationship while she works on a reality show that seeks to romantically link contestants; Makkai reads an abbreviated version of this story on NPR which can be accessed here. Toward the end of the story, the narrator discusses what will need to be done to make the landscape look, in September, as though it is November: “We’ll spray some of the remaining leaves yellow, some red. We’ll make everyone wear a coat. We’ll kill the grass with herbicide. It’s sick and it’s soulless, but it’s one of the addictive things about my job: Here, you can force the world to be something it’s not.” This tight and complicated link between artifice and reality is considered in almost every story. Many of the protagonists are artists, and we see them grapple with their art and how it reflects, mirrors or distorts the real world.

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