Tournament of Books 2011: The Shortlist Reviews

The following are reviews for each of the ToB 2011 contenders. I will continue to update this list with my own reviews of contenders over the next few weeks.

The books are listed in alphabetical order by author.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

“There are readers and book clubs who will really enjoy it, will love puzzling out what the magical ability could mean or what having the ability would be like or how beautiful it all is. However, the novel struck no chords of mine. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but it tasted kind of hollow.” Hungry Like the Woolf

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is an imaginative, evocative book, although a bit depressing. I’ll look for more in the future from the author, even though I can’t give this novel a hearty recommendation.” The Literary Lunchbox

“I would label Aimee Bender’s second novel slightly surrealist, with touches of magical realism. I typically like novels in this genre when they are well-written (e.g., The Time Traveler’s Wife). Unfortunately, while this book had such potential, I finished it and felt too much went unanswered and, worse, unresolved – and not in a good way.” Serendipity in the Stacks

Nox by Anne Carson

“Nox…isn’t a lot of things; one thing it most certainly is,however, is a story. Come to Nox with an open mind, and you will be rewarded for the work you must do as reader.” Writer’s Block

“Anne Carson’s brilliant long poem, Nox, is an exquisite elegy for her dead brother. Encased in a tomb-like box (the death mimesis is startling), this powerful book, daring to challenge the limits of the bound book, unfolds in accordion-pleated pages. The design is a bit of a distraction…..But the dazzling language and the originality of the concept transcend the overly-elaborate design.” Frisbee: A Book Journal

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

“Marie’s simple spontaneity is a poor way to live, but a fine way to carry a novel.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“BUY IT! It’s a well-paced, enjoyable read that you’ll gobble up in a sitting or two.” Confessions of a Book Lush

“Dermansky offers a satisfying portrayal in Bad Marie of what it’s like to be blissfully at the whims of a toddler—to win by losing, by giving in. Marie is only really happy when she’s with Caitlin, strolling in the park, bathing, napping, eating mac n’ cheese. There’s so much real affection between Marie and Caitlin, as they struggle and grow together like real families do, that one almost forgets how ineffably wrong it is what Marie’s doing.” The Uninitiated via The Millions

Room by Emma Donoghue

“There exists an unforgivable disconnection between the intense trauma during captivity and the casual voice with which the novel is told.” A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook (Warning: Spoilers)

“I found the child narrator tedious and annoying, I thought the plot spectacularly unconvincing, and the ending contrived. Great slabs of text I found boring (and scampered through them without apparent loss).” ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

“[T]he most common feeling I experienced when reading Room was boredom. While it is essential for Donoghue to relate Jack’s experiences in sufficient detail to give the narrative authenticity (so it looks as though it’s coming from him in real time, and not being told to explain things to the reader), it turns out that a little of this actually goes quite a long way.” Asylum

“The result for me was a readable narrative, but not much more. Those who love this book engage with it emotionally; those who hate it disengage just as emotionally; I have to admit that I didn’t really do either.” Kevin From Canada (Warning: Spoilers)

“The age of the misery memoir was supposed to have passed with the recession but this has just the right combination of misery and sentimentality to send it to the top of the bestseller list.” Just William’s Luck

“This is an astonishingly good novel, one that is ambitious in subject matter and perfectly executed so that you read it, partly in awe, partly in shock, but always completely immersed in the story. It’s got cracking dialogue, an irrepressible narrative voice and the kind of page-turning quality that makes you eat up 320 pages in one sitting.” Reading Matters

“This book is magical. It brings to readers the pure joy associated with simple things and it expresses, with clarity, the manner in which we overburden our lives with mundane excesses.” Reviews from a Serial Reader

“Some people have said they thought Donoghue really nails the voice of a young child… to which I counter that this is why we don’t normally read books written by five year olds. They aren’t very insightful, and the things they find interesting are not exactly what adults (especially those living outside of Room) will find fascinating.” Steph & Tony Investigate

“[A]lthough I did love it while I was reading it, it doesn’t quite reverberate post-read. Especially since its flaws were more visible to me, that they weren’t hazed over with the pacing, and Jack’s character.” Sasha & The Silverfish

“As parents know, there is a huge difference between how a four year old speaks and how a five year old speaks, between how a five year old speaks and how a six year old speaks. If Jack did not sound right for his age in even one of his sentences, the novel could have been a failure. Fortunately that does not happen.” Tony’s Book World

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“A Visit From The Goon Squad was a continuing exercise in frustration. It always offered the promise of going somewhere…, but the problem was it never did — in any of its numerous plot streams.” Kevin From Canada

“Egan deserves an ovation – the virtuosic form and style don’t detract from the elegant substance of the book. Simply, the substance is the outstanding element here.” The Mookse and The Gripes

“Although I have no musical talent, rock and roll interests me, and I really enjoyed these devastating stories.” Tony’s Book World

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

“I do not think Franzen achieves for our age what Wharton achieved for hers. Her comedy is brilliant because it is so penetrating. Franzen’s comedy is not brilliant because it obscures more than it reveals. The difference is that between a joke and wit.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“…an utterly middle­brow novel whose reputation for “seriousness” is the result of a successful marketing campaign…” A Commonplace Blog

“Freedom is not nearly as good — nor as deeply thought-provoking — as some of the laudatory reviews would like it to be. Neither is it as atrocious as some of the negative found it….I suspect in a few years I will remember some episodes with considerable fondness, but have trouble describing the overall work” Kevin From Canada

“It was juicy, varied and ever so engaging. Each of the characters was alive and vibrant and struggling to cope with the lot they had been dealt…..[O]ver all, highly recommend this one to anyone looking for a bit of escapism!” Reviews from a Serial Reader

“I’m glad I didn’t hate the book, but I’m sad that I can’t say that I loved it, and I certainly can’t say that I loved it more than The Corrections. I definitely thought Freedom was a thoughtful and thought-provoking read and it felt very ‘Franzen-esque’ to me, but at the end, even if I think it was a very good book, it really just felt like, well, a book.” Steph & Tony Investigate

“There are simply too many essayistic moments in Freedom (close-reading the persona of Conor Oberst being perhaps the most glaring example) for my taste. His impulse seems to be to diagnose, rather than to portray, the world around him. The Berglunds are so overtly emblematic of a particular swath of American life that they, conversely, represent no one.” The Reading Ape

“I’m hoping there will be more authors with the courage and the insight to write about real life during these years. Some of these novels may not be as smooth as ‘Freedom’. They may be spiky and much more difficult to read, but they may be deeper and more profound. For now,
‘Freedom’ is a good place to start to come to terms with this era.” Tony’s Book World

Bloodroot by Amy Greene

“This novel about Appalachia and family legacies enchants with its dense atmosphere and wiling voice. Bloodroot largely achieves what it seems Greene set out to achieve, which is a way of saying the novel lived up to my modest hopes for it. There are worse things to say about a book than that it does well what it attempts. Greene should have little trouble finding her ideal audience.” Hungry Like the Woolf [Added 3-1-2011.]

“Still, we found ourselves strangely compelled. For one, Greene is fantastic with setting and her rendering of life in the foothills of the Appalachian is reason enough to read Bloodroot. We think perhaps a less complicated narrative and an easing-off of the allegorical pedal would serve Greene well; she writes well enough to do without so much, well, art.” The Reading Ape

“Better than the characters however, is Greene’s writing. The landscape jumps off the page. The reader can picture every ridge, every path, every home; can smell every tree and every town, and can hear every voice and every thought. The descriptions are what make this exceptional storytelling, and even if the characters were half as interesting this would be a lovely story. But because the characters are remarkable themselves, Bloodroot becomes more than that and is a wonderful American family saga.” Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

“If you like horse-racing at all, this is a truly exceptional book. Even if you don’t, I recommend it — Jaimy Gordon has captured a world that really does exist within, but also apart from, the world that we all know and done it in exceptional prose. You are unlikely to describe Lord of Misrule as a study in realism if you don’t know the race track, but let me assure you that is exactly what it is.” Kevin From Canada

“Gordon’s world of horses and racing is raw and revealing – straight from the horse’s mouth – with manipulation and danger – and little humor. This is a difficult book to digest…..The characters are tough, their lives tougher, and there is little redemption in the story. Gordon even lets you into the minds of the horses, at times, but you’ll find no relief there.” No Charge Book Bunch

Next by James Hynes

“Hynes…does not bring anything new to the subject of horny old men…..What that leaves us is with are some well-told anecdotes that do little besides get us to the big plot development, the twist that is supposed to inflate the mundane with meaning. The surprise feels inauthentic. The ending rather lame. Kevin’s sudden insight is less an epiphany than a momentary deviation.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“It begins innocuously, and keeps it up. You’re not sure why this is a novel at all, surely it could have been edited down to a short story. Only upon completion does Hynes’ slow burn make sense. He’s lulling us into a certain calm, one particular way of thinking…..It’s very good. Please go pick it up, read it, and let me know what you think.” Chapman/Chapman

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

“Those who like the novel find its opening funny…but I did not. Clever, yes, and I can see why some would find it funny — alas the humor passed me by…..I found the latter half cumbersome and tedious.” Kevin From Canada

The Finkler Question, luckily, is a triumph. It is a novel which rounds up its themes and runs them to ground exhaustively (and sometimes exhaustingly)…..[It is] the best sort of comedy: that which is not just adjacent to tragedy but fully steeped in it. If there’s one thing better than being funny, it’s being funny and sad at the same time.” Asylum

“This book is quirky. It is luscious and it is actually really funny in parts. Yes, it is sad and has an undercurrent of self-pity and introspection…” Reviews from a Serial Reader

“Jacobson creates a story about Jewishness (which one can hardly pin down, so varied in all respects are the Jews in this book) and loss. However, and perhaps more at its heart, this is a story about identity and identifying with other people, particularly those who come from a background one doesn’t share and cannot simply imagine or adopt…..It is hard to watch these three men struggle to communicate who they are as individuals seen, often out of context (as they see others), in a larger community, and it is presented with loads of comedy and pathos.” The Mookse and The Gripes

“‘The Finkler Question’…became a grim un-funny tirade with a few jokes tossed in to somewhat disguise the venom…..Jacobson uses the story and his stock characters to relentlessly pursue his political goal, and the result is a lame novel..” Tony’s Book World

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

“[O]ne of the most readable books on this year’s Booker longlist. Perhaps it is too long, although it wasn’t for me…..It is the kind of serious, but very reader-friendly, book that is all too rare in modern publishing.” Kevin From Canada

“Murray has a versatile voice, ventriloquising everything from business-speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio. The messiness that results can be a strength as well as a weakness…..Not much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy that it explodes out in unexpected directions.” Asylum

“[T]here are times when there is too much going on and the structure falls apart. Having said that, Murray manages to keep up the energy and interest throughout the book’s significant length…and also pulls that clever trick of making a comic novel tug on the heart strings occasionally, where even the most ridiculous or repulsive of characters can extract the reader’s sympathy.” Just William’s Luck

Model Home by Eric Puchner

“If you like Franzen’s work, you might want to try Puchner. Puchner does not have quite the stylistic flair of Franzen and his prose feels a little less crisp. But he covers very similar themes in a very similar way. He is better at maintaining the focus on what is important, namely the Zillers, though he does this in part by subjecting them to a statistically unlikely tragedy.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“To me, Model Home is a novel with a deep moral, a message intertwined with the importance of truthfulness, and the circumstances and outcomes realized when the truth is hidden…and when it is set free.” Live Vitale

“Puchner’s writing is very vivid, and I guess I did get sucked in by all that drama which is what made me want to put it down originally. The characters do grow and evolve, though, so I can say that I do recommend this book.” BGW Designs aka MsWas

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

“I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend…and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.” Reading Matters

“Many readers will feel that this book has a happy ending – or as happy an ending as an author like Shriver is ever likely to provide. However, I couldn’t see it as anything other than a placebo, to use the medical terminology favoured by the book.” Baker’s Daughter Writes

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

“‘Super Sad True Love Story’ is super good, super funny, and indeed super sad. Read it now while literacy is still in vogue.” Ruelle Electrique

“This is also a book about language and virtuosity. Shteyngart’s brilliant verbal inventions are comically devastating. His ability to extrude new idioms out of internet chatter and thin air is magical. Like a fusion of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Super Sad True Love Story is the story of a quest that is questionable and a future that is sadly foreseeable.” Of Books and Reading

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

“[The] rough handling of the cast detracts from the overall effectiveness of the book. Message predominates over character and realism in the plot. This weakness creeps into other areas as well. The New York office of Schrub Equities is located on the 88th floor (Karim likes the symmetry of the number) of World Trade Center 1. This is at least the second book in the ToB that relies on the reader’s knowledge of and emotional response to 9/11 to provide a significant part of its power. I consider that a shortcoming.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“Despite it’s flaws, Kapitoil is a compelling debut. Wayne has much to say about the interloper in American society, and offers an engaging outsider’s perspective on the quotidian. Though Karim remained too much a mystery, I was wholly invested in the world of language, class, and urban absurdity that Wayne set his story against.” Writer’s Block

“this is one of those books that just thrums with a dry, witty energy that begs to be read and though it isn’t perfect, it is well worth the read. my only complaint was that Karim’s character made everyone else in the book seem rather two dimensional” The Little Reader

Savages by Don Winslow

“The novel is enjoyable, notwithstanding a few annoyances…..As thrills go, this is premium grade. I would be appalled if this actually won a Rooster, but, if you are looking to have your pants set on fire, you could do worse.” Hungry Like the Woolf

“The good guys are bad, the bad guys are good. If you haven’t read it shutdown your computer right now and run out and grab a copy. Seriously.” Bite the Book

“I’m of two minds about whether “Savages,” Don Winslow’s marvelous, adrenaline-juiced roller coaster of a novel, is a rookie reader’s best introduction to his work. There’s a delicious sense of satisfaction in seeing how Winslow has chiseled his increasingly lean prose to diamond-like precision over the course of 12 novels and fused the themes of “The Power of the Dog” (2005), his epic account of the country’s never-ending war on drugs, with the razzmatazz syntax of his surf-detective novel “The Dawn Patrol” (2008) to produce something heady and new.” Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

16 Responses to Tournament of Books 2011: The Shortlist Reviews

  1. Steph says:

    I loved seeing the variety of opinions these many books provoked. If nothing else, I think we’ll be in for an interesting ToB with plenty of lively debate!

  2. Kerry says:

    I’m glad you liked it. Because I don’t have reviews of all the contenders up, I thought it might be helpful/interesting to see what others were saying. As always, so much depends on the particular judge. Many of the matchups could legitimately go either way, I think. I think this year’s Tournament is more difficult to predict than last year’s.

  3. Sarah says:

    Wow! The reviews you have flagged look fascinating, particularly those on Room. (Not having read the novel in question my gut reaction is to recoil in horror, and I am not seeking with huge enthusiasm to change my position.)

    It might take a while to work through the list… Can you remind me of the closing date for entries? Thanks, Kerry.

    • Kerry says:


      I am with you on Room. I am predisposed not to like it so much.

      You have a full week and one day to make your choices. So take your time. The entries must be in by March 7, 2011 by midnight US (EST).

  4. Wilson Knut says:

    Thanks for the overview.

    It’s unfortunate that you feel predisposed to dislike Room. In terms of what Emma Donoghue accomplishes, it is a good book. I think it gets a lot of what Charles Baxter calls “Owl Criticism.” “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”

    That’s not to say the book is flawless. The subject matter and child narrator make it difficult to not see it as sentimental. I don’t think it will make it very far in the tournament, although I personally liked the book.

    • Kerry says:

      I hope the overview was useful. I will definitely try to keep an open mind regarding Room. Sometimes low expectations actually help me appreciate the book for what it is rather than expecting it to be something it is not. And I will definitely try not to fall into “Owl Criticism”. A great term, one I will remember and will use to constantly remind myself not to judge a book by whether it has owls in it.

      I think it has a fair shot at moving forward, though, like so many others, it is so divisive that the wrong judge in the wrong round could do it in. (On the other hand, it may have enough popular support to hit the Zombie round and march to the Rooster from there. In other words, don’t give up hope yet.

  5. Sarah says:

    The presence of the owl is irrelevant to the quality of the book, agreed, but there is more good literature available than most of us could read in a lifetime. Owls have their place!

    • Kerry says:

      Owls do have their place. The wise pay attention to owls in making their initial choice of reading material.

      And kudos to you for sticking up for the owls, Sarah!

  6. Kerry, thank you for this kick-ass post. Clever treatment. Really first-rate. Awesome. K

  7. Michelle says:

    This has been a lot of fun to follow along. Thank you for posting slices of all these reviews. I’ll be happily absorbed for the next few days just following links.

    • Kerry says:


      I am thrilled you are having fun with it. I certainly found interesting the range of views on a number of these books (especially those blogged by many, like Room).

      Thanks for letting me know.

      Happy Reading!

  8. RFW says:

    I was disappointed in “…Lemon Cake” – Water for Chocolate was better.
    Freedom gets my 5/5 rating – great writing; great read
    Lord of Misrule – a winner

    • Kerry says:

      I too was disappointed in Lemon Cake. I have not read Water for Chocolate, but you are not the only one to suggest it was better execution of a similar idea.

      I am almost finished with Lord of Misrule. It is very good. I preferred A Visit From the Goon Squad to Freedom and I am looking forward to Skippy Dies.

      Thanks for the comment!

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