• Dear Thief

    Samantha Harvey

    I saw this book on a giveaway pile and initially ignored it. In concept, it sounded somehow weak, comprised of a letter a woman writes to a friend who disappeared years ago, a letter largely about a betrayal that seemingly lead to their estrangement. Yet the power of this book is its lyrical writing and philosophical asides. There is a story revealed through the letter writer’s reminiscences, but as the pages collect, it seems less like a communication than something else. For one thing she invents a whole life for her friend, nicknamed Butterfly, and describes in detail the cabin in the woods where she imagines Butterfly lives. Late in the book (letter), she writes:

    I wonder if not being able

  • Escape Plans

    Teri Vlassopoulos

    The rotating point-of-view structure in fiction has started to become somewhat of a literary trope to me, often unnecessary and even distracting. But I love how Teri uses it with purpose here. (This is another book where I have some friendly bias to acknowledge, having known Teri and her writing for many years.) I can see a lot of her experience in this book, from its settings in Toronto, Montreal, and Greece to its road trip interlude via Niagara Falls, but her characters inhabit those terrains with their own motivations.

    The three narrators are a fragmented family: a separated couple and their sole child. The timeline is anchored around the father Niko’s death; he chronicles his last months while the...more

  • Nights of Indigo Blue

    Theresa Varela

    I’ve been friends with Theresa since before her first novel Covering the Sun With My Hand, so a bit of partiality will be inevitable here. There are some similarities between the two books — both are set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Theresa grew up — but this one is a little different as it’s the first in a series of mystery novels centered around the character Daisy Muñoz. I don’t read many mysteries these days, but like Theresa I obsessively read Agatha Christie novels and other series when I was younger, so it was fun and a little nostalgic to return to reading that style of fiction.

    A good mystery hinges largely on strong plotting, and Nights of Indigo Blue has a...more

  • Infinite Home

    Kathleen Alcott

    I suppose we are reaching peak Brooklyn when in the course of two months, I’ve read two recent ensemble novels based in Brooklyn brownstones. (The other one I skipped writing about.) The characters of Infinite Home are a disparate group who barely interact with each other for years, yet in the course of this story come to bond into a familial unit. It’s a breeze to read, the chapters bouncing quickly around the different apartments of the building, and Alcott manages to fill in everyone’s back story while moving the greater narrative forward. But for the most part the characters remained fictional personas to me. They are all affectedly flawed with too many contrived and even out-of-character moments — as when (spoiler)...more

  • My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante

    After reading A Little Life, I floundered about, starting and not finishing several books, getting to the end of one only by skimming through the last twenty pages. Some of them are surely good ones, I just wasn’t in the mood for them. As September neared and Ferrante fever grew in anticipation of the publication of the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I borrowed a copy of #1 and thankfully fell under its spell. I needed something to break the trauma hex I was under.

    I’m writing this as I’m about 80% through the second book, so it’s hard to really just write about this one. I can already see why people have said that...more

  • A Little Life

    Hanya Yanagihara

    It’s hard writing about this book as it’s very engrossing and entertaining in some ways, but so devastating in others. At the beginning it appears to be a story about a group of four guys leaving college and commencing their adult lives in New York City, a pretty standard coming-of-age scenario. The narrative focuses on each friend in turn, revealing their upbringings, their artistic and scholarly talents, and their adolescent dreams, but when it lands on Jude, the narrative twists. His troubled early life is outlined hazily and suggestions of serious trauma (of all varieties) are clear from the beginning. Yet it takes nearly the whole novel to unlock them all.

    Hanya Yanagihara has referred to this book as a dark...more

  • All the Light We Cannot See

    Anthony Doerr

    It’s not very often that I’m drawn to read historical novels, yet this one received so many accolades, including this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that my curiosity prevailed. I can see why it has wide appeal: Doerr has a sentimental writing style and the alternating chapters are short enough that they can’t get too complicated — they generally pull each other along swiftly. Early on this pacing felt choppy to me, and I’d set the book aside after a few tiny chapters, making it a much slower read until I adjusted to the constant jostling.

    Set primarily in occupied France during WWII, the focus is divided between two young people on opposing sides. One is a French girl name Marie-Laure...more

  • Call Me By Your Name

    André Aciman

    I spent about a month trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory before finally accepting that the passages I liked were buried in overwrought nostalgia about a privileged childhood that just didn’t resonate with me. It felt like the wrong sort of prose to apply persistence to appreciating. Instead I turned to this novel with similar reminiscent ambitions, but far more engrossing story. Elio recalls the summer he was seventeen when he fell for a visiting scholar who came to the family villa for a summer residency. He tries his best to act indifferent to the man, but they share a brief romance.

    On the heels of my Nabokov abandonment, the descriptions of the idyllic scenery along...more

  • Outline

    Rachel Cusk

    I referred to 10:04 as feeling at times like “a novel of anecdotes,” with many parts structured around characters telling each other stories. Entirely by chance I picked up Outline shortly after and found Rachel Cusk built it entirely around this framework, though more people call it “a novel of conversations.” The twist is that the main character, a writer teaching a summer workshop in Athens, converses mostly with people who dominate their exchanges, and therefore we learn very little about her, directly at least. The premise is that she takes shape in the negative space of all their chatter, but that idea at first seems more convincing than the book’s actuality.

    Cusk acknowledges this subtly. At one point...more

  • 10:04

    Ben Lerner

    Leaving the Atocha Station was an unexpected pleasure, a book that I picked up uncertainly and felt won over by. Even though I was conscious of limiting my expectations (or at least trying to) with this novel, Lerner’s second, I still felt disappointed that I wasn’t as engaged with this one as I’d hoped I would be.

    There are similar themes and pretenses in both books, like questions of authenticity — though here they are framed more from the perspective of intended fraudulence rather than being discovered as accidentally inauthentic. It’s much clearer in this novel how similar the main character is to the author, but 10:04 treads into autobiographical metafiction territory, most clearly when the short story Lerner had published in...more