CRITICAL HIT AWARDS: April’s Best Book Reviews according to Slate’s Dan Kois

Welcome back to the Critical Hit Awards for book reviews. This is a round-up, a recommended reading list, and — why not? — a terribly prestigious and coveted prize. Winners receive a bang-up gift from Field Notes, our beloved sponsor. Nominate your favorite review of the month by tweeting it at @electriclit with the hashtag #criticalhit, or cast your vote in the comments section below.

Our guest judge is Dan Kois, editor of the Slate Book Review.

Electric Literature: The Slate Book Review had its first birthday in March. Happy birthday!

Dan Kois: Thanks! I’m really proud of our first year. As a mode of covering books, it’s working: Traffic and conversation are both up on our books coverage as compared to pre-SBR times. Our VIDA numbers could’ve been better, though. [EL covered the VIDA count here.]

Electric Literature: If your reviews carried no identifying marks — no Slate logo, no byline — would a reader be able to guess that they came from the Slate Book Review? Should they be able to?

Dan Kois: Every review I edit contains hidden within its text the name of my daughter, Nina.

Electric Literature: ‘Critical Hit Awards’ is really just an anagram for ‘Rad Satirical Witch’. What kind of editorial balance do you try to bring to the Slate Book Review overall? Balance between what and what?

Dan Kois: I’m looking to achieve a balance between old and new books; books from big houses and books from small ones; traditional reviewy reviews and critical essays that use the book as a diving board. And I want a balance of fun books and serious books and great books and not-so-great books.

Electric Literature: You have reviewed books, movies, graphic novels, and music. There’s a guy at The Awl who reviews the weather and a guy at The Rumpus who reviews the world. Is there anything that can’t be reviewed? Anything that you would not review?

Dan Kois: I imagine anything can be reviewed. When was the last time your fellow human beings didn’t have an opinion about something?

Electric Literature: I have no opinion on that. What’s your favorite review that you published recently? What is the other publication whose reviews you most admire?

Dan Kois: I really liked Julia Turner’s handwritten review of Philip Hensher’s book on handwriting. And while I read reviews from all over the place, there’s no publication that I specifically seek out the way I rummage through the various sections of the Sunday New York Times in search of the Book Review.

Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by Namara Smith in n+1

As a crazed Hilary Mantel fan, I’ve read a lot of reviews of Hilary Mantel, but this piece (which is sort of about the two Cromwell novels but really about her whole career) is very smart and thoughtful about the way Mantel uses language, and has a killer kicker.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Reviewed by Heather Havrilesky in The Baffler

Haters, take heed: As we learned in our Audio Book Club discussion, Fifty Shades of Grey is an extremely rich text, and Havrilesky’s post-capitalist critique is fascinating. My favorite takeaway: That the obvious precedent to Fifty Shades is, of course, American Psycho, and the book would have been more believable if Christian Grey were a serial killer.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Reviewed by Alison Lurie in The New York Review of Books

A totally great and angry– angry not at Messud, but at a world in which humans like Messud’s protagonist are created.

p.s. Ron Charles’ “Totally Hip Book Review of The Woman Upstairs in the Washington Post is the best Dr. Elaine Showalter cameo ever!

Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter

Reviewed by Ed Bark in The New York Review of Books

Bark wasn’t completely over the moon for Brian Stelter’s book. He wrote a review which explained why, very clearly and convincingly. Stelter fans everywhere accused him of being jealous. Bark stuck to his guns. (Stelter, to his credit, was game.) This was a very solid daily-paper review that I appreciated for its willingness to go against the zeitgeist. It also has going for it that it’s completely right. Top of the Morning is not The Late Shift.

Oprah Winfrey, Book Critic

Reviewed by Jennifer Szalai in The New Yorker’s Page-Turner

Jen Szalai is one of my favorite critics, and she’s been busy this year helping out at the Times Book Review. So it’s a delight to see her byline on this engaged, open-minded piece about Oprah’s effect on the literary marketplace.

2012 Best of the Year Anthologies: SF/Fantasy

Reviewed by Paul Kincaid in the Los Angeles Review of Books

This review of two best-SF/fantasy-of-2012 anthologies isn’t a piece I would necessarily think to assign, and if I assigned it, I wouldn’t want it to come in exactly this way. But then as a reader it turned out I loved that the piece was written from completely inside the science-fiction world, and takes as granted that readers would understand what Paul Kincaid means when he notes that one story feels like “a British catastrophe story of the 1950s transposed to contemporary America.” I don’t understand, but I’m gonna go try and figure it out now! I also love that he dismisses the story by George Saunders in half a sentence.

Congratulations to our winners! You may contact Brian Hurley to claim your Field Notes prize. And thanks to Mark Molloy for nominating book reviews this month!

Read a good review lately? Nominate it for a Critical Hit Award by tweeting it at @electriclit with the hashtag #criticalhit or cast your vote in the comments section below.


– Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate, where he edits the Slate Book Review, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

— Brian Hurley, curator of The Outlet’s Critical Hit Awards, is an editor at Fiction Advocate.

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