New books guide.

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We read hundreds of book reviews each month to select the works to include in each issue. We seek a balance among three categories: highly-rated books that received many reviews, highly-rated books that received less comprehensive coverage, and lower-rated books that were widely reviewed and well publicized.

The collective wisdom of critics

Each critic offers an individual perspective. We quote and summarize the reviews studied to provide an informed, balanced critique and to make sure that unique insights do not get missed. We apply a rating to a book from each review we study--those ratings are assessed to provide a final rating.

Spoiler-free book descriptions

We hereby pledge not to reveal the ending or revelatory plot points when discussing a fictional work.

APPLYING RATINGS TO WORKS OF ART IS FRUSTRATINGLY REDUCTIONIST

It is also helpful in navigating through myriad choices. As with any rating system, it is solely a guide--a summing up of several informed perspectives. There is no substitute for reading the book yourself and forming your own opinion.

literary

FICTION

EXCELLENT

Returning to Earth

By Jim Harrison

Reflecting on life and death.

In this sequel to True North (FAIR/GOOD Sept/Oct 2004), four narrators reflect on their interrelated histories. The story centers on Donald, part-Chippewa and part-Finnish, who is afflicted with ALS. As death approaches, he dictates his memoir; his wife, Cynthia, transcribes it and inserts her own thoughts. The second part of the novel belongs to "K," an unrelated nephew figure and perpetual student who is in love with Donald and Cynthia's daughter Clare--and with Cynthia herself. Donald's brother-in-law, David, suffering from depression and family guilt, reveals tragic events from the family's past in the third section. In the final part, Cynthia tries to find a path through her grief while coming to terms with the family's dark history.

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Grove Press. 280 pages. $24. ISBN: 0802118380

Cleveland Plain Dealer EXCELLENT/CLASSIC

"Harrison has crafted something remarkable, a set of interlocking stories set in a complex, evolving geography--an artistic achievement worthy of Faulkner.... Returning to Earth, an important work by a major writer, is, at its core, about death, about final reckonings and resolutions." DANIEL DYER

San Diego Union-Tribune EXCELLENT/CLASSIC

"This could almost be Hemingway, in some of the Michigan stories, but it's even more stripped than Hemingway.... [The novel] is both familiar and strange, rooted and rootless, endlessly dark and occasionally hilarious." BART THURBER

Seattle Times EXCELLENT

"Harrison's trademark prose, lyric and fluid, seamlessly melds perceptions, memories and dreams to capture his characters' inner lives.... Harrison's fiction has always displayed an unsentimental respect for Native American history, custom and belief." TIM MCNULTY

Minneapolis Star Tribune GOOD/EXCELLENT

"Returning to Earth is a much slower, more meditative book [than True North], its plot mostly shucked in favor of the characters' restless turning over of the heavy stones of love and death.... Harrison has a gift for creating richly detailed female characters--honest, bright, sensually clear if momentarily befuddled by life or, in this case, by the death of the love of her life at 45." JIM LENFESTEY

San Francisco Chronicle GOOD/EXCELLENT

"What sustains Returning to Earth is Harrison's evident love of the place--the novel's principal setting, Michigan's Upper Peninsula--and of the characters he has put into it.... Harrison is not always at top form in this novel, but when he is, you feel the hurt." CHARLES MATTHEWS

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Jim Harrison, best known for Legends of the Fall, evokes both Hemingway and Faulkner in his most recent novel. The novel's prose is spare and strong, but the characters and their secrets, slowly revealed through four interlocking first-person narratives, are rich and complex. Set 30 years after True North (which should be read first), Returning to Earth is anchored in the death of Donald, who appeared as a teenager in the earlier work. Some critics felt that Returning to Earth didn't quite measure up to Harrison's ability, but most praised the new novel as "a prodigious achievement" (San Diego Union-Tribune).

WHAT CAME FIRST

TRUE NORTH | JIM HARRISON (2004): David Burkett's ancestors have been pillaging the pine forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula since the 1860s: his own alcoholic father had inherited his family's rapacious tendencies and acquired a penchant for young girls. Between his teenage years and middle age, David tries to make sense of his family's sins. Critics were frustrated with the novel's structure, complaining that Harrison reveals key events too early and allows the story to founder.

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GOOD/EXCELLENT

The Bastard of Istanbul

By Elif Shafak

A nation in denial.

In her second novel published in English, Turkish author Elif Shafak examines the effects of censorship on individuals, families, and nations. Teenager Asya Kazanci listens to Johnny Cash, reads Sartre, and lives with her eccentric family in Istanbul. Born out of wedlock to the Westernized Zeliha, Asya knows nothing about her father and, consequently, feels as if she doesn't completely know herself. Meanwhile, her Uncle Mustafa's Armenian-American stepdaughter Armanoush has become obsessed with the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish authorities in 1915. Armanoush travels to Istanbul to learn more of the genocide, but she finds that history has been rewritten. As each girl struggles to define herself, worlds collide, old secrets emerge, and lives change forever.

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Viking. 368 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670038342

Chicago Tribune EXCELLENT

"It's as much family history as national history that drives this vital and entertaining novel. And it's the powerful and idiosyncratic characters--beginning with teenage Zeliha in a miniskirt and tight-fitting blouse, and pregnant out of wedlock, on her way to get an abortion in an Istanbul summer rainstorm--who drive the family history." ALAN CHEUSE

Newsday EXCELLENT

"[Shafak] is so intent on illuminating the tragedy of the Armenian genocide and the injustice and psychic harm wrought by its denial that she does slip into soapbox mode now and then. Because of her skill and intensity, however, such authorial intervention ... doesn't detract from the reader's appreciation for her complex characters and many-faceted plot." DONNA SEAMAN

St. Louis Post-Dispatch EXCELLENT

"Shafak writes powerfully of war (cultural and familial), of peace and of the meaning of moral fortitude. She possesses a steady hand when it comes to creating strong female characters, and her vivid descriptions of the charms of Istanbul serve to lure the traveler better than any pitch from a tour company." PATRICIA CORRIGAN

San Francisco Chronicle GOOD/EXCELLENT

"Shafak dives into the genocide itself, with the story of Armanoush's relative Hovhannes Stamboulian, an intellectual and children's book writer abducted and killed by the Turkish authorities, but she is uncertain in such foreign territory (a disease that creeps into Bastard's American sequences as well), and the subplot is a rare misstep in this otherwise assured novel." SAUL AUSTERLITZ

Los Angeles Times FAIR/GOOD

"It is an odd, not always successful hybrid: a serious novel of ideas with characters that at times seem borrowed from a sitcom soundstage and a plot founded in dark family secrets unearthed in high soap-operatic fashion.... She stuffs more into this novel than her often hastily sketched characters can carry." BEN EHRENREICH

NY Times Book Review FAIR

"In this new book, she has taken on a subject of deep moral consequence. But is the work worthy of its subject? ... When the novel's skeleton finally dances out of its flimsy closet, it's clear that although Shafak may be a writer of moral compunction she has yet to become--in English, at any rate--a good novelist." LORRAINE ADAMS

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Reviewers opined differently about the success of The Bastard of Istanbul. Most praised the novel's oddball characters and magical realism as a counterbalance to the horrors of violence and war; others felt that such irreverent portrayals gave the darker subject matter a cartoonish aspect. All agreed that Elif Shafak's clear prose and lush descriptions allow Istanbul to emerge as a character in its own right. In an example of life imitating art, Shafak was charged, though acquitted, with "denigrating Turkishness"--a violation of the Turkish penal code--for her in-depth account of the mass murder of the Armenians. If not uniformly praised, Shafak's defiant novel is a brave, complex study of how the past can completely overshadow the future.

GOOD/EXCELLENT

The Crimson Portrait

By Jody Shields

Reconstructing faces--and love.

During World War I, an English estate belonging to bereaved war widow Catherine becomes a makeshift hospital, where wounded soldiers are treated for their disfiguring facial injuries. The chief surgeon, Dr. McCleary, collaborates with an Armenian-born dental surgeon, Dr. Kazanjian, to repair the patients' ruined faces. When they reach the limits of medicine's power, they collaborate with an artist, American Anna Coleman, to construct realistic masks, which will hide the scars and allow the disfigured soldiers to interact with the outside world. Catherine is drawn to one of the wounded soldiers, Julian, who reminds her of her dead husband--and devises a way to convince herself that he is, indeed, him.

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Little, Brown. 304 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 0316785288

San Francisco Chronicle EXCELLENT

"[T]he author vividly shows how the viciousness of war can deal a fate that almost equals death: the complete transformation of a man's most identifiable physical trait and the public humiliation that often accompanies the alteration.... [Her] lilting, intelligent prose shows what lengths one will go to...

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