Our 7 Most Favorable Reviews in August 2023

  • September 4, 2023

We came, we read, we gushed. Here’s a recap of the titles that left us especially warm and swoony last month.

Our 7 Most Favorable Reviews in August 2023

The Devil’s Playground: A Novel by Craig Russell (Doubleday). Reviewed by Therese Droste. “Scottish writer Craig Russell is a master of his craft. He is as prolific in his writing — having published almost one book every year since 2005 — as he is diligent with the historical details in his gothic horror and thriller novels. His most recent, The Devil’s Playground, may represent his pinnacle. Russell’s exhaustive research of Prohibition-era Hollywood brings to life silver-screen stars amid an atmosphere of corruption, murder, and voodoo that features Beelzebub himself.”

August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Yet as Patti Hartigan writes — gloriously — in August Wilson: A Life, the first major biography of the man, Wilson’s genius was singular and his work universal, winning him two Pulitzer Prizes and 29 Tony Awards. While Hartigan, a former theater critic for the Boston Globe, genuflects to Wilson’s monumental talent, she does not spare him his faults. Hypersensitive to slights and given to explosive rages unleashed on waitresses or workmen below him in status, Wilson was an errant husband who married three times and took countless lovers. His first priority in life — above family and friends — was his work. ‘For him,’ Hartigan states, ‘writing was a force necessary for survival.’”

Hangman: A Novel by Maya Binyam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Sally Shivnan. “At the end of the novel, the narrator’s own trust in his tale is upended in a unique, remarkable way that invites readers to revisit their assumptions as things fall into place that had not seemed out of place before. The conclusion is in keeping with the absurd elements everywhere in the story and with the dreamlike quality of the narrator’s journey. It’s a clever ending that some may find too clever. ‘So, I stood where I stood,’ Binyam’s narrator declares at one point, ‘waiting for my life to happen.’ Plenty ends up happening for him on this otherworldly trip to the trippy otherworld that is Maya Binyam’s Hangman.”

Tom Lake: A Novel by Ann Patchett (Harper). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “Patchett’s rendering of this family captures so much of what is true in daily life and family dynamics — especially of even grown children being incapable of grasping their parents’ life before them — moving easily from laugh-out-loud funny to moist-eyed poignance, sometimes in the same sentence. The author weaves her story back and forth between Lara’s formative years on stage and screen and her present life of husband, children, a dog, and a vast and demanding orchard (cue the Chekhov references). How Lara went from the one to the other is a central question that keeps the pages turning. The fact that this is a happy, well-adjusted family takes nothing away from the intrinsic drive of the narrative. Lara is telling us the story, too, and she knows how to keep us hooked.”

Left Is Not Woke by Susan Neiman (Polity). Reviewed by Jethro K. Lieberman. “Woke adherents propose, many explicitly and some by implication, that Left values necessarily incorporate woke views. Right-wing opponents have gleefully accepted this as the only true claim of wokeism and have beaten liberals over the head with it. Leftists with a more traditional view have shaken their heads in wonderment at much of the new Left orthodoxy. Is it so? Are Left and woke coterminous? Emphatically not, says Susan Neiman, an expat political theorist now living in Berlin, where she is head of the Einstein Forum. In Left Is Not Woke, a sharply pointed, eminently readable, and admirably succinct polemic, Neiman stomps hard on the thoughtlessness and even frivolity of a political and cultural phenomenon that has agitated, incited, and confused significant portions of the American public.”

Saint Juniper’s Folly by Alex Crespo (Peachtree Teen). Reviewed by Nick Havey. “At the center of Saint Juniper’s Folly is a clever mystery that Crespo unfolds in tantalizing chunks. What is going on with the house we come to learn is called Blackwood? Why is Jaime the only one who can’t leave its boundaries? And why are Taylor and Theo the right ones to undo whatever magic is keeping Jaime prisoner? I loved unraveling the answers to these questions and look forward to more of Crespo’s writing. It is, in a word, enchanting.”

Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages by Mark Gregory Pegg (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “Expect to find many from the era’s A-team here (Charlemagne, Aquinas, Boccaccio), as well as a flock of delightfully obscure benchwarmers (the visionary Barontus, Archbishop Agobard of Lyon, Gervaise of Tilbury). The result is an impressionistic, shifty montage of close-ups, a snappy mix more fitting, arguably, for trippy pre-sleep reveries a la Coleridge than the transfixed all-nighters that back-cover blurbers are prone to invoking.”

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