TOB 2012 – Reviews of Contenders

For fans of the Tournament of Books, I have collected reviews of each of 2012’s contenders. And, don’t forget, get your TOB 2012 Contest entries in by midnight on March 4th. In the order they appear on the brackets:

The Sense of an Ending:

Mine: “The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before…Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.”

A Rat in the Book Pile: “As a meditation on memory the work would carry more conviction were the differential between history and memory more subtle, the divergences smoother. Although there are shadings of memory there are also jarring inconsistencies which smack more of an unreliable narrator than a nuanced memory. Memory is not so much reinterpreted as reinstated.”

The Asylum: “[W]hat cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.”

Kevin from Canada: “Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel…..I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book…..For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading.”

Tony’s Book World: ” It is not very often today where a novel starts with a premise and follows that premise through to its logical conclusion….[I]t is such a pleasure to read a novel that is smarter than we are.”

The Devil All the Time:

Mine: “Aside from the fact that Pollock uses the trope of serial killers, only employs male characters who (by the end of the book, almost to a man) have killed, and (except for Grandma Emma and saintly Charlotte) only employs female characters whose greatest pleasure is dropping their panties for fat slobs, the book is reasonably well-written…..These are characters, overtly “good” or “bad”, who serve primarily as vehicles for scenes involving either sex or violence, and often sex and violence together.”

Mostly Fiction (Brodie): “It’s heavy, horrific, beautifully written and filled with studies of people one hopes never to meet. There were times when I felt like a voyeur, watching something that was meant to be private and not shared but I read on anyway, fascinated and sometimes disgusted, but always riveted and totally impressed with the quality of the writing. The tenor, weight and tension of the novel never lets up.”

Mostly Fiction (Van Horn): “The prose is sleek, tight, and tidy with the spills of human degeneracy and base desires. But there is a taut and tense plot, too, a story that will have you biting your nails to the quick while you gasp with mortified pleasure at every single page.”

Lightning Rods:

Randall Reads: “It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it. Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point. But I didn’t get the point.”

Salvage the Bones:

Randall Reads: “Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.”


ANZ LitLovers LitBlog: “But did I like it? Not very much. Do I think it’s a significant work illuminating some aspect of the human condition? No, not really, there’s nothing very original about any of the themes.”

Mostly Fiction: “Murakami shirks conventional expectations, refusing to answer the questions he poses and tie his loose ends into pretty little bows. He breaks from craft wisdom – stick to the essentials – with gratuitous descriptions and his characters repeatedly mull over the same plot points. He even challenges Chekov’s famous maxim by introducing a gun that never goes off. But I can’t help but feel that’s the point; life isn’t pared down to essentials, and insofar as our lives have meaning, they’re necessarily narratives, stories just as mundane – and hopefully just as magical, if not as fantastical – as this one.”

The Last Brother:

Mine: “The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering.”

Moving Under Skies: “This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished…..[I]t worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me.”

The Stranger’s Child:

Kevin from Canada: “It is not for me — the prose started out flat, moved on to annoying and became even more self-indulgent and tedious as the novel wore on. I like Proust (and his style) but I am afraid the characters and world that Hollinghurst portrays never came to life for me. Unable to enrol in either story or style, I found the read a difficult slog.”

The Tiger’s Wife:

A Rat in the Book Pile: “The story-telling is good. Suspense is maintained, although I am not a big fan of the abrupt cut from one story-line to another. There’s a lot to be said for a discursive style which conceals its diversionary intent…..I should mention that Obreht uses dissimilar styles for her different voices, and does so convincingly. And I should refer admiringly to the depth she brings to the daughter/grandfather relationship.”

another cookie crumbles: “I was struck by how direct and wonderful the writing is – it’s emotive without being sensational, and it’s beautiful without being hyperbolic…..I loved this book, and would recommend it greatly.”

Mostly Fiction: “Even if the somewhat disparate threads in the book fall slightly short of tying into a seamless whole, this debut novel is easily one of the year’s best….Obreht tackles large and complex issues here: war, loss, the sense of place and how it forms who we are.”

Sasha & the Silverfish: “I was fascinated by this novel, gripped by the near-mythical events that only lore-tinged narratives can accomplish—but I took away nothing coherent. That is, if someone asked me what the book was about, I would have no choice but to say, “See, there’s this, well, I really can’t say it neatly.” That is, “Holy pandas, I have no fucking clue.” That is, “Oh, I like it well enough, but please don’t ask me what it was about—what it’s supposed to be about, what it’s supposed to accomplish.” That is, “There’s a tiger in there somewhere. I think.””

State of Wonder:

Mostly Fiction: “Patchett at her best is a magician of wonder, and this is indeed among her best. I count her Bel Canto as one of the best books I have ever read…..I found myself reading State of Wonder slowly and more slowly, allowing myself to sink into her depth of character, enjoying the deliberate pace of her revelation, reluctant to start another chapter until I had digested the one just finished.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Frankly, the cause of whatever failure State of Wonder has, I’m all to willing to heap on its lead Dr. Marina Singh’s shoulders…..Again and again, I had to witness her sheer nothingness. She’s a blank slate, she’s nothing. There’s supposedly all this wonder around her, but she is always a victim to that wonder’s underbelly, she never reciprocates what wonder the setting and the story throws her way. She’s technically part of something revolutionary…, but what does she do? She just stumbles around, prey to insects and stubborn scientists and her own fool self. Ugh.”

The Sisters Brothers:

Mine: “[The] glimpses of the everyman struggling with the world are, actually, much more exciting than the gunplay. It is a struggle for good and evil that is inside us all, a struggle with no clear winner (though sometimes a clear loser)…..Eli’s is the common struggle to make the best of an often harsh world.”

Kevin from Canada: “deWitt is a strong writer; the narrative is fast-paced and even the awkwardness in some of Eli’s wording is effectively deliberate. Unfortunately, for an action-based book, most of the incidents are quite predictable and even when the story becomes more contemplative you can only take the notion of a hired gunslinger with a heart so far.”

Reading Matters: “My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries…..But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching.”


A Rat in the Book Pile: “[B]ereavement in its own right is the primary theme. It drives the novel, and Russell charts the journey through grief with unrelenting bleakness. It is hell, it is denial, and it is vulnerability. It is solitary and it never ends.”

Mostly Fiction: “With her energetic prose, quirky settings, and fantastical plots, Russell is a writer’s whose style forces you to sit up and take notice, sometimes at the cost of emotional involvement with her work. However, Swamplandia!, with all its flashing-neon prose is an insightful (and surprisingly funny) exploration of the loss of innocence that inevitably follows the death of a parent.”

Tony’s Book World: “To me the Swamplandia! story is irresistible. Some of the reviews I’ve read refer to the story as magical realism. I disagree. I’m here to tell you that there really are woman alligator wrestlers, and there are families running alligator farms. The daughter Osceola believes in ghosts, but there are a lot of real people who believe in ghosts. There is talk of ghosts in the novel, but no actual ghosts. I would call Swamplandia “improbable but not impossible” realism. Between that and magical realism, there is a world of difference.”

The Cat’s Table:

Mostly Fiction: “It is a beautifully rendered story of growing up and living with the memories of youth. The novel’s language, the tone, the images and the tender approach to his subject suggest that this is probably Ondaatje’s most personal and intimate novel in many years.”

Kevin from Canada: “The Cat’s Table does not so much tell a story (although it does do that as well) as sketch the outlines of another one — for me, the best part of it was the way that it set my mind rolling on similar aspects of my own history and encouraged me to fill in those gaps. That is a substantial accomplishment for any novel…..The Cat’s Table was a most rewarding achievement.”

Reading Matters: “This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone…, you want to keep turning the pages…..Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it.”

The Marriage Plot:

Mine: “[T]he most interesting parts of the novel were Roland Barthes and the ways Leonard was like DFW. The less like DFW Leonard was, the less interesting the novel became…..The interior [of this novel] is more than mere curiosity, but not sufficiently more that I have any inclination to press it into the hands of passersby.”

A Momentary Taste of Being: “[T]his was a compelling, interesting, fascinating look at very intelligent people making mostly very poor choices……The prose of the book is, at times, quite lovely.”

Mostly Fiction: “With devastating wit and a nod to intellectual and academic influences, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a fresh new way to approach the predictable marriage plot, revealing its relevance in today’s world. It is an achievement.”

Kevin from Canada: “The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed…..[The Marriage Plot] makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Recently, a friend asked me, on Twitter, if I’d read it and liked it. I told him it was a college novel, and a love triangle, and that it was lovely. I add now that it brought me back to college and its sneaky little promises of infiniteness, of love, of the golden life beyond it…..But what can you do when you read a book that lends you a voice? That shares not just your love for some very specific object, but allows you to express that love, if only by pointing at a passage?”

Tony’s Book World: “The novel ‘The Marriage Plot’ is itself a marriage plot, but I can tell you that Jane Austen has not a thing to worry about. One thing that is missing in the plot is a central character who is a little older, who can look at these graduating college seniors with a little distance, a little irony. As it is I felt mostly claustrophobic disdain for these youthful characters.”

Green Girl:

Mine: “For me, with fashion and hookups doing most of the work of plot, the novel lost its way. I became disengaged and felt removed from Ruth by the end…..I lost the thread. I would say the end was disappointing, but the story had unraveled to the point I was no longer invested in the outcome.”

The Nervous Breakdown: “Kate Zambreno has written a powerful, hypnotic, and lyrical book, with Green Girl. There have been comparisons to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and I think that is a good place to start, but somewhere in here there is also the violence and danger of the misanthropic American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and the work of Mary Gaitskill, as well. It is not just a cautionary tale, but also the baring of a soul—in all of her complex, damaged and vulnerable glory.”

The Art of Fielding:

Mostly Fiction: “Was the book intended as satire, I wondered? But the humor is not consistent. Harbach writes well for the most part, but now and again you see him reaching a little too hard…Then there are the implausibilities…But what finally sunk the book for me were the sexual relationships, none of which I could believe.”

Kevin from Canada: “[A] book that is not only entertaining but, in its own way, thought-provoking. A good “college” novel takes you back to your own experience…..That, though, is the “depth” of the novel: on an entirely satisfying surface level, it is a story that features a largish cast of well-developed characters, every one of whom I found interesting.”

Open City:

Mostly Fiction: “Open City, with its meandering ruminations of disparate topics, is not for readers who look for books with specific plot lines and incidents. And while Julius discusses many subjects of immediate interest at length (even the New York City bedbug epidemic gets an airing here), he is less than forthcoming about what seems to have been a less than straightforward past.”

Kevin from Canada: “Perhaps because I liked the tone and surroundings of the first third so much, I became increasingly frustrated as the novel proceeded…..For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.”

3 Responses to TOB 2012 – Reviews of Contenders

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Kerry, thanks for the e-mail reminder (I thought I had more time!) and for posting these links. I would not have enjoyed scouring the web for trustworthy reviews, and so a big thank you for doing the hard work for me.

    It seems to me as if the contenders are stronger than last years’ picks and there are some tough choices to be made right from the first round. But I like a challenge and am happily confident that I cannot possibly do worse than I did last year.

    Like all the best puzzles I am solving this one on the back of an envelope. My entry will be winging its way in your direction just as soon as I transfer it to e-mail…

  2. neighbors73 says:

    Well, it seems silly to try and put myself is such distinguished company, but review and predictions for the first four match-ups are here:

    • Kerry says:

      Nonsense, your predictions with mini-reviews are excellent. Required pre-TOB reading for TOB fans. Good stuff and I completely agree with your bottom line on each of these matchups. In other words, my assessment of the books varies only at the margins, if at all.

      Thanks for sharing with me and putting the link here.

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