Critical eye: book reviews roundup

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe, Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland, Astray by Emma Donoghue and Through the Window by Julian Barnes

At 81, Tom Wolfe may be showing no sign of flagging, but many reviewers of his 720-page fourth novel Back to Blood, which centres on two young Cuban-Americans in Miami, found it tiring. "If this novel were rushed into A&E, it would immediately be put under heavy sedation," sighed the Sunday Times's Peter Kemp. "For the excitability that has become increasingly noticeable in Tom Wolfe's fiction here soars alarmingly off the scale … Back to Blood doesn't so much satirise Miami's excesses as hyperventilate over them." James Wood, in the New Yorker, was wearied too, but by lack of variety and complexity: "Wolfe's characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust – for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way." More exhausted groans came from the New Statesman's Leo Robson, who condemned it as "obvious, ungainly and shrill". However, the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani was less implacable than usual, pronouncing it "a soapy … novel that's filled with heaps of contrivance and cartoonish antics, but that also stars two characters who attest to Mr Wolfe's new and improved ability to conjure fully realized people". And in the Miami Herald, Connie Ogle's verdict was that "it will offend sensibilities all around, but the pointed observations are dangerously close to reality". Applauding too was the Spectator's Wynn Wheldon ("exhilarating"), albeit on the basis that "as with most satire, it is fundamentally conservative"; and in the Scotsman, Tom Adair judged it "even better than [Wolfe's] great hit The Bonfire of the Vanities".

In Gossip from the Forest, wrote the Observer's Olivia Laing, Sara Maitland "journeys, fairytale-like, deep into the woods, taking 12 walks in 12 British forests", and "each walk closes with a retelling of a classic fairytale". Noting that it was "a bushy, sprawling book, as perhaps it should be", Laing called its author "a wonderfully enthusiastic guide to her twin realms". Jane Shilling, in the Sunday Telegraph, seemed also to approve of this propensity to sprawl, calling Gossip from the Forest "richly digressive" and linking Maitland with Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane as "modern writers of outstanding prose" who have "found inspiration in the wildwood". In the Financial Times, Suzi Feay relished Maitland's "fascinating observations about fairy tales" and her "bold and enjoyable" retellings, but was less keen on the material on forestry.

No such caveats accompanied the praise for Emma Donoghue's Astray, which the FT's Francesca Segal described as "a collection of historical fiction featuring nomads, tricksters and misfits"; as well as the Irish-Canadian writer's "remarkable feel for period detail", Segal was struck by her skill as "a shape-shifter, a subtle, imaginative impersonator". Also charmed, the London Evening Standard's Rosamund Urwin wrote that "Astray deserves a wider audience than Donoghue's early fiction received. I hope the legacy of [her Booker and Orange shortlisted novel] Room is that she gets it".

Andrew Holgate, the Sunday Times's literary editor, went for superlatives in his review of Julian Barnes's "magnificent" Through the Window, a "wonderful collection" suggesting that its author "most singularly succeeds" in the essay form, not fiction. David Sexton, his Evening Standard counterpart, was impressed too, though less ardent; both singled out the concluding review of two books on bereavement and mourning, for Sexton "eloquent", for Holgate "an immensely moving coda".

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