October, or “prestige book season,” has yielded some of the best fiction and nonfiction work published so far this year. Here are reviews of some of the month’s most high-impact releases.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “We Were Eight Years in Power” (Oct. 3; One World)
Renowned Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates compiles many of his signature essays over the past eight years in this new collection. Coates’s release is a moving elegy for the end of a political era, but it also tells another, equally compelling story of Coates’s rise to the forefront of nonfiction writing.
Although I had read several of the published essays, Coates also provided new framing of the material and additional personal essays reflecting on those time periods. These portraits provided a honest look into and analysis of the ideological transformations that America underwent into the Trump administration.
His embittered new perspectives admit a naivety I had never seen myself in his work. “In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America,” Coates writes. Passion, however, remains a constant factor in Coates’s writing throughout his meteoric rise as a journalist. The intensity of his beliefs crackle through “We Were Eight Years in Power.” For Coates, as he writes, “Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in the hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not…ignore the great crimes all around us.”
Phillip Pullman, “La Belle Sauvage” (Oct. 19; Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Twenty years after the runaway success of Phillip Pullman’s classic high-fantasy series His Dark Materials, I had high expectations for this companion book. While his master worldbuilding skills have held throughout the years, but unfortunately, the new characters Pullman has written aren’t nearly as remarkable as the ones he spun 20 years ago.
The story returns to the His Dark Materials heroine, Lyra, as a baby, who is revealed as the center of a doomsday prophecy. Throughout the book, Pullman explores the personalities of the characters revolving around Lyra during her childhood. His master storytelling techniques kept me interested, almost against all odds: the book itself had very little narrative progression.
“La Belle Sauvage” lacked the sense of direction that had pervaded His Dark Materials. In particular, since we already know the ending of this prequel from the previous books, it was very difficult to retain interest in fast-paced, action-based elements. Still, I enjoyed the book as a revisit to one of my favorite childhood novels, and look forward to the next books in this trilogy.
Colleen Hoover, “Without Merit” (Oct. 3; Atria Books)
Colleen Hoover, most famous for her teen and new adult literature, has moved away from a romantic-comedy style of writing and into deeper, more serious terrain. I enjoyed Hoover’s first step in this direction with her previous novel, “It Ends With Us.” In her most recent work, “Without Merit,” though, she went too far.
“Without Merit” handled too much for my comfort. Jumping from dark issue to dark issue—encompassing mental illness, sexuality, suicide, the Syrian refugee crisis, and abuse—the book felt messy. Even worse, when not stalwartly advocating for one of 10 million pet social justice projects, Hoover exhibits homophobia, ableism, and (as per usual for many romance novels) slut-shaming in her work. Pieces of dialogue like “You open your legs to him any time he wants it” casually permeate “Without Merit,” with few consequences for the characters who exhibit such hateful sentiments.
“Without Merit” is so horrific that I would rather not summarize it. However, it has somehow received a 4.06 rating on Goodreads from over 12,000 reviews, so maybe there is something wrong with my interpretation. If you have read my warnings and still wish to proceed, you can read this Kirkus Review blog for more information.