New books guide.

Position:Bibliography

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. Th ere is no substitute for reading the book yourself and forming your own opinion.

literary

FICTION

EXCELLENT

Call Black Horse

By Robert Olmstead

A not-so-civil war.

May 1863, Virginia's Transmontane region. Hettie Childs, the clairvoyant mother of 14-year-old Robey, senses that Robey's father, a Confederate soldier, is in imminent danger. The boy secures provisions--including the horse of the title (the blacksmith who gives the horse to Robey warns, "It's a horse that leaves quite an impression. It is the kind of horse that can get you killed")--and heads off in search of his father. Against the backdrop of some of the war's most disturbing and eerie sights, he arrives in Gettysburg in the days following that famous battle. Part rescue mission and part coming-of-age, Robey's journey transforms him from an innocent child to a man who starts to understand war, vengeance, and redemption.

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Algonquin. 224 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1565125215

Chicago Tribune EXCELLENT/CLASSIC

"Coal Black Horse, Robert Olmstead's magisterial sixth book, is as sensate as poetry and forbidding as any squall, steeped in detail but bound by few storytelling conventions. I wondered, as I read it, if ... readers of The Red Badge of Courage and The March and Cold Mountain will make room for another novel of a certain era that is rife with the shattering lessons of war." BETH KEPHART

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel EXCELLENT/CLASSIC

"Coal Black Horse explores the themes of maturation, violation and creation in a coming-of-age story. Olmstead is an extraordinarily lyrical writer whose book, in focusing on a young man tested by war, perhaps more closely evokes Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage." CARLO WOLFF

Cleveland Plain Dealer EXCELLENT

"Coal Black Horse will be the one that finally brings him the attention he deserves.... In stark, simple language, and a grammatical structure that echoes the work of Cormac McCarthy, Olmstead has found his own voice, one you will not easily forget." SARAH WILLIS

Denver Post EXCELLENT

"Writer Robert Olmstead fully flushes out the atrocities of war as Minie balls whiz past and explode, the sights and sounds of war alternately suffocating and mesmerizing.... In Coal Black Horse, Olmstead follows his true narrative voice and writes like a man on fire." ELISABETH A. DOEHRING

San Diego Union-Tribune GOOD/EXCELLENT

"[Coal Black Horse] is not The Red Badge of Courage, but aside from its traces of oddball language, it is a gripping read, with much extremely vivid rendering.... Sex, violence, revenge, sympathetic young protagonist, maiden in distress ... it's all there, enveloped in a plausibly dark take on life and death." JAMES LEIGH

Washington Post GOOD/EXCELLENT

"To the steady drumbeat of powerful Civil War novels that continue to arrive, you must add Coal Black Horse.... More troubling are fl ashes of pretension that mar Olmstead's prose. The book's epigraph comes from Job, and the voice of God seems to keep butting in throughout the story." RON CHARLES

NY Times Book Review GOOD

"It is men, destroying one another in ways Olmstead describes with gory extravagance--'hair, brains, entrails and shreds of human flesh cooking black in the heated air'--who come off as beasts. Yet for all the novel's success as a grueling adventure, its depiction of Robey's inner journey from boy to man works less well." ROY HOFFMAN

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Robert Olmstead has previously published three novels, a short story collection (River Dogs), and a memoir. Brief and intense, Coal Black Horse has generated high praise and seems destined to become the author's breakout book. Critics inevitably compare the novel to Charles Frazier's masterpiece, Cold Mountain, and other classics of Civil War and postapocalyptic fiction: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, E. L. Doctorow's The March, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Michael Shaara's Killer Angels. Some critics note passages of purple prose and convenient plotting, though most agree that Olmstead has written a stark, beautiful novel whose powerful, disturbing, and ultimately redemptive vision negates any flaws.

BOOKMARKS SELECTION

EXCELLENT

A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini

Afghan life--the female perspective.

In The Kite Runner (GOOD/EXCELLENT Sept/Oct 2003), Khaled Hosseini, a native of Kabul who came to the United States in 1980, depicted boyhood friendship and adult redemption in war-torn Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns, in chronicling three decades of turmoil leading up to and after the Taliban, again offers a terrifying perspective on Afghan life. Mariam, an illegitimate daughter of a successful businessman, is forced as a teenager to marry an older, brutal man, Rasheed. When Mariam fails to bear children, Rasheed takes an even younger wife, Laila, whose liberal, intellectual parents were killed when the Communists took over Kabul. As the two women forge strong bonds with each other despite their household's--and society's--repression and violence, they suffer, sacrifice, and learn to have faith in love and hope.

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Riverhead. 384 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594489505

Charlotte Observer EXCELLENT/CLASSIC

"In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini does something highly unusual: He surpasses the power and depth of his first novel, The Kite Runner.... It brings to life a part of the world that the average American knows little about, and makes real for us the very human implications of our foreign policies, long after Afghanistan faded from the headlines." JEAN BLISH SIERS

Chicago Sun-Times EXCELLENT

"The violence is as graphic as you would expect in any book that details the atrocities of war.... More than likely, A Thousand Splendid Suns will tear at your heart and make you better understand the legacy of violence our soldiers are fighting against in Afghanistan." CHERYL L. REED

Los Angeles Times EXCELLENT

"Suspended in my otherworldly zone, I discovered the fictional village of Gul Daman, the minarets, bazaars and gardens of Herat, the snowcapped mountains and communal tandoors of Kabul.... [A] worthy sequel to The Kite Runner." JANE CIABATTARI

Minneapolis Star Tribune EXCELLENT

"The texture of these characters' journey around the craters of their country is no doubt well known to readers of international news. Rendered as fiction in A Thousand Splendid Suns, however, it devastates in a new way." JOHN FREEMAN

San Francisco Chronicle EXCELLENT

"Readers will also gain a better understanding of the effects of what Hosseini calls the 'cultural vandalism' of the Taliban, which shattered Afghanistan's arts and culture, and the devastating impacts of Shariah law on women's lives.... Hosseini's bewitching narrative captures the intimate details of life in a world where it's a struggle to survive, skillfully inserting this human story into the larger backdrop of recent history." JULIE FOSTER

Washington Post EXCELLENT

"But just in case you're curious, just in case you're wondering whether in yours truly's judgment it's as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better. This is said in full knowledge of Hosseini's literary shortcomings." JONATHAN YARDLEY

Christian Science Monitor FAIR/GOOD

"The fact that Hosseini began by thinking of his main characters as 'other'--to the extent of wondering 'about their inner lives, whether they had ever had girlish dreams'--is a huge hurdle.... If A Thousand Splendid Suns is a little shaky as a work of literature, at least a reader feels that Hosseini has more at stake than where the book ends up on the bestseller list." YVONNE ZIPP

Denver Post FAIR

"The somewhat overly ambitious plot extends from the relatively peaceful 1960s to the fall of the monarchy in 1973, to the Soviet war, to the Taliban years, to the U.S. invasion, and to the UN and NATO reconstruction efforts.... One senses Hosseini's reluctance to get close to his female characters, making them seem flat as opposed to the fully realized males in the first novel." DIANE SCHARPER

CRITICAL SUMMARY

A Thousand Splendid Suns raises inevitable comparisons to The Kite Runner, which sat on The New York Times best seller list for 103 weeks. Most critics agreed that Khaled Hosseini's second novel is as devastating, if not even more powerful, than his first. A natural, if not always the most eloquent or subtle, storyteller, Hosseini gives voice to two women trying to survive in a despotic household while caught up in the throes of war. Most critics thought that Hosseini successfully evokes his female characters' inner lives--not an easy feat for a male author--while a few observed that Mariam and Laila fail to resonate emotionally. Others noted some melodrama and predictability. Despite these quibbles, the novel offers a chilling, all-too-real portrait Afghan life. "It is, for all its shortcomings, a brave, honorable, big-hearted book" (Washington Post).

EXCELLENT

The God of Animals

By Aryn Kyle

Coming of age while breaking wild horses.

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