Book Reviews

These are casual reviews which often contain a link to my more formal reviews for the book industry e-newsletter Shelf Awareness Pro.
To see a list of my published reviews , click on this complete index of my Shelf Awareness reviews and author interviews.



Yiyun Li's Kinder Than Solitude

posted Mar 24, 2014, 8:31 PM by Holloway McCandless


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I reviewed Yiyun Li's Kinder Than Solitude for Shelf Awareness Pro last month and I'm still thinking about it--this is a compliment.

I think the power of Kinder Than Solitude derives predominantly from Li's astute characterizations, but the novel offers many ancillary pleasures: detailed scenes of teenage life in Beijing in the Tiananmen Square era, the adult lives of those same characters in China and the U.S. in the very recent past, the indelibility and destructiveness of shared secrets on relationships, and a very subtle exploration of culpability and loyalty.

I was already a fan of Li's before this novel, as I loved many of the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Then I read her beautiful and self-revealing essay "Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life" in A Public Space, and I was blown away.

Highly recommended, for almost any reader. Kinder Than Solitude is also good choice for book clubs: there is plenty to gnash over.

David Gilbert's & Sons: Review & Interview

posted Oct 15, 2013, 8:00 AM by Holloway McCandless



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David Gilbert's & Sons is a playful, twisty literary high-life saga about a reclusive novelist and his spawn. Because the novel begins with an unreliable narrator and there are a lot of interrelated characters, it takes a little while to figure out who's who, but after you sort that out & Sons is a lively, antic ride with some unusual plot surprises. You can read my full Shelf Awareness review of & Sons here.

To get an idea of Gilbert's interesting approach I recommend reading this Q & A I did with him, also for Shelf Awareness. We were careful not to let slip any spoilers (I hate, hate, hate spoilers!). Here's a link to my "Ampersands & Adolescense" interview with David Gilbert.

My Non-Fiction Pick for 2012

posted Dec 22, 2012, 9:53 AM by Holloway McCandless


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Along with Oprah, the rest of the universe, and another reviewer at Shelf Awareness, I chose Cheryl Strayed's Wild as a favorite non-fiction book of 2012. I think it would make an especially good gift book for any young woman, because it's an extraordinarily balanced (true) story of how to be strong and wild in a good way. It's also a great blister-free piggyback on a 1,000-mile hike.

A Thanksgiving Reader's Feast

posted Nov 20, 2012, 1:13 PM by Holloway McCandless   [ updated Nov 20, 2012, 1:18 PM ]


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It's nice to have a book sized to fit your reading window. If you are lucky enough to have a couple long afternoons to spend with a book over the Thanksgiving weekend, and if you'd like to read about the late-20th century sentimental education of a sweet high school quarterback (nicknamed "Lizard") whose suburban life takes some surreal but believable turns, I recommend Bill Roorbach's Life Among Giants.

I reviewed Life Among Giants recently for Shelf Awareness and I was intrigued by the varied cast of characters and impressed by how well the author entwined a murder mystery and a bildungsroman. Plus, wouldn't you like to know what it's like to live next door to a legendary British rock star and his Norwegian prima ballerina wife?

*FTC Disclosure: I bought some of these books with my own bucks, but most were review copies I received through my assignments from Shelf Awareness (see an index of my Shelf Awareness book reviews here), but my opinions are not for sale, at least not for the price of a free book or a paltry book review fee. If you click on a "Shop Indie Bookstores" link above and end up ordering the book I might make a few cents, but the reason I link to Indie Bookstores on my site is that I adore them (my local: the fantabulous Brookline Booksmith) and I want them to survive.

Stride into the Past with Emma Donoghue's Astray

posted Nov 4, 2012, 8:01 AM by Holloway McCandless   [ updated Nov 4, 2012, 8:03 AM ]



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Emma Donoghue's Astray is the perfect book for someone who is too tired to read long passages at bedtime or by a cozy fire (hmmm, how would I know this?). Astray's 14 tight, self-contained stories based on historic incidents and personages satisfies in short stints. [That's an overly-sibilant sentence, but no time to fix it now.--hmcc] Most of the stories take place in the 1800s but there's one set in Puritan New England and another as recent as mid-20th century Canada.

Donoghue gets you quickly into the time and place of the protagonist, cuts to their dramatic event, and resolves their fate in 15 pages or fewer. It sounds brusque but it feels complete, more nugget than flake. You finish the stories feeling educated and entertained, and the short research summaries that follow answer any questions you might have about how much of the story is factual.

Astray would be an excellent gift book for a teacher, or for anyone who likes historical fiction that does not play loose with the past.

To read more, and learn which story features a "bro-pachymance," please see my review of Astray for Shelf Awareness.

More of My Enthusiasm for Zadie Smith's NW

posted Sep 11, 2012, 7:27 PM by Holloway McCandless   [ updated Sep 12, 2012, 8:05 AM ]


I read Zadie Smith's NW about a month ago and my admiration for it has only strengthened in retrospect. Though it's not a perfect novel* it is very, very good at using idiosyncratic-yet-accessible language to represent modern dilemmas of identity. I wish Smith could write faster (it's been seven years since On Beauty) because I can't wait to read what she writes next.

NW shows how singular Smith's style is--singular in the way the style of a Wes Anderson film is singular, only 1000 times less twee--yet it's not show-offy. It's as if she's really writing for the reader, not for her ego, though she's so smart her intelligence gets embedded in the prose as a sort of lit-ego. 

Because just writing a review of NW for Shelf Awareness wasn't enough, I've been listening to a bunch of Zadie Smith podcasts, and I finally found the best one at Nikesh Shukla's Subaltern podcast. I reviewed it over at Litagogo with links for the web and iTunes. If you're remotely a fan of Smith's, you should go listen to it. I'm going to subscribe to Shukla's podcast, too, because his line-up looks great and because he coined the expression "podamuse bouche." 

*NW does have a perfect middle--the Felix section--which I'm going to re-read as soon as I get caught up on my deadlines oh yeah.

posted Sep 11, 2012, 10:27 AM by Holloway McCandless   [ updated Nov 4, 2012, 7:36 AM ]

Book Review

posted Jun 7, 2012, 9:54 AM by Holloway McCandless

Check out my discussion of A.L. Kennedy's "prose appendage" for Identity Theory (a review of her short story collection What Becomes)
More A.L. Kennedy fanship at Litagogo (podcast links)

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