RaveThe Washington Post\"Groff bestows the tales of threatened kids with the surreal sheen of fairy tales ... The stories that remain in the safety of the upper middle class are weaker and tend to run together, like outtakes from an unfinished longer project. They share a wry, elliptical voice like that of Rachel Cusk, whose work often springs from a similar autobiographical bent ... While these stories don’t always achieve the psychological depth of Groff’s novels, there’s serious pleasure to be had in her precise descriptions of landscape ... Her characters may complain, but Groff is clearly drawn to the state’s bizarre lushness. With this collection she stakes her claim to being Florida’s unofficial poet laureate, as Joan Didion was for California.\
RaveThe Washington PostSanity — the thin line between having it and losing it — is a recurrent theme. Many of these characters fall somewhere between neurotic and downright dysfunctional … In life, we sink under the weight of our own limited brains. But as readers — at least of fiction as wry and crisp as Eisenberg's — we can escape.
PositiveThe New York TimesIf anyone ever needed a loyal spin doctor, it's Sheba Hart. The heroine of Zoë Heller's darkly comic second novel, What Was She Thinking?, is a 42-year-old high school teacher who is caught having an affair with Steven Connolly, one of her 15-year-old students ... Heller, London-born and Oxford-educated, is particularly witty when parsing British class perceptions... At the novel's center is a dead-on meditation about the different treatment of male and female sex offenders ... The plot twist may not be a huge surprise, but Heller handles it with wry grace, managing to mock her characters without allowing their story to tip into farce.
PositiveThe Washington PostEugenides excels at penetrating — and gently mocking — the insider lingo of academics. He can make a realistic setting seem deliciously weird, and the highlights in these stories often feature simultaneously funny and plaintive images that encourage our appreciation for 'the pleasant absurdity of America' ... the highly unusual situations and settings featured in these tales feel more true to his vision than the ones chronicling more typical dissatisfactions: the divorces, infidelities and dashed hopes that turn up in many an American writer’s New Yorker magazine story. Although the writing is undeniably skillful, Eugenides isn’t at his best when focusing on 'lives of quiet desperation' ... A 'fresh complaint' is the legal term for a report of a sexual assault to a third party soon after it happens, which can help to corroborate the victim’s claim. The best stories in this collection offer a sophisticated riff on that concept. They show how memory distorts our view of our own pasts, and how blind we are to the trajectory of futures, especially as we act impulsively.
PositiveThe Washington PostMany recent young adult novels have featured adolescent girls who are self-sufficient and wise beyond their years, coming of age in harsh, unforgiving worlds...Nevertheless, someone should slap an NC-17 label on My Absolute Darling As well as being graphic about its sexual violence — and violence in general — the novel is long, dense, ornate in diction and full of sophisticated literary allusions. Middlemarch gets a shout-out, as does Deliverance. Martin reads Kant and Hume; there’s a bullied kid named Rilke. The analogues are not recent YA hits but novels like Charles Portis’s True Grit and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, both of which also feature teenage protagonists. Part of what makes Turtle so memorable is her passion for the natural world. She takes refuge in the woods and ocean. Descriptions you might skip in another novel here become a mesmerizing, fairy-tale-like dreamscape, hauntingly beautiful and threatening ... For the most part, Tallent manages to keep the melo- out of his drama. I could have done without quite so many animals killed in quite such coldblooded ways although maybe that is to be expected given the number of guns on the wall (and knives in the drawer). But My Absolute Darling is a novel that readers will gulp down, gasping.
PositiveThe Washington Post[Spencer's] prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship ... Spencer isn’t as convincing at analyzing the locals as he is at parsing the dynamics of the more affluent and urbane, from the cuthroat shoptalk at Hollywood industry parties to egalitarian pickup games at the Manhattan YMCA ... But River Under the Road is wry and insightful enough about the intricacies of maintaining an artist’s life — and the sacrifices required to achieve it — that it will no doubt become required reading for the Hudson Valley set.
PanThe Washington PostHow readers respond to this novel will largely depend on how they feel about reading blow-by-blows about sex between a 26-year-old middle-school teacher and the 14-year-old boys she craves … Celeste remains mostly a ‘soulless pervert’ whom we listen to ‘with a curious revulsion, the same way one might watch a cow give birth.’ She remains largely unreflective about the roots of her fixation on boys. Jack isn’t a particularly well-delineated or interesting character, and the setting, despite presumably being Tampa, is so generic that the novel might as well be called ‘Akron’ …. For the most part, Nutting doesn’t [get the tone right]. That’s a shame, because she’s capable of knockout writing.
PositiveThe Washington PostMiddlesex cuts to the titillating chase in the novel's first sentence, but then teasingly meanders … If Middlesex seems top-heavy on the gnarled family tree and skimpy on the fascinating blow-by-blow of Cal's burgeoning sexuality, be assured that Eugenides intends the uneasy balance … Our bodies, Eugenides convincingly argues, are not necessarily our selves. There's the pesky matter of soul to contend with, and, blessedly, Middlesex bestows on Cal Stephanides a rich, complicated, subtle one.
RaveThe Washington PostThese stories are full of roiling grief, yet they’re never merely grim. As one sailor muses, about the Antarctic landscape, 'By day the icebergs refract a vividness of color beyond the power of art or words to represent.' Shepard’s project is always to push toward that sense of wonder and the 'high hopefulness' of purpose that ordinary people have always brought to the project of living — to give us through fiction a sense of profound empathy that the historical record alone cannot. He most stunningly succeeds.
PositiveThe Washington PostWilson aims for 'a weird kind of postmodern fairy tale' — like an animated Edward Gorey cartoon, with a more realistic contemporary setting and a warmer, lighter touch. Perfect Little World is at its most charming while exploring the dynamics of group parenting ... Wilson also enjoys poking fun at the size of his cast of characters. The novel is prefaced with a faux-genealogy chart tracing the relationships between Dr. Grind, his three research assistants, the 10 babies, and their 19 parents ... Fans of the sharper irony in The Family Fang may find Wilson’s new novel a tad sappy. But just a tad. For the most part, Wilson pulls off his sweet-and-tart tone.
PositiveThe Washington PostZink writes some of the most comical lust between 'love weasels' in contemporary fiction ... [she] excels at scathing set pieces that caustically sum up places and local cultures ... Zink’s scathing takedowns of activist pretensions are dead-on ... Zink’s novels have a loose, jumpy energy and depend on machine-gun-fire dialogue. She gets her characters in motion, like mismatched roommates in a ramshackle house, and lets us enjoy watching them pinball around.
RaveThe New York TimesMiraculously, Finn avoids every cliché about first- versus third-world problems. In this richly textured, intricately plotted novel, she assures us that heartbreak has the same shape everywhere ... The Gloaming is chillingly cinematic in contrasting East Africa’s exquisite landscape with the region’s human needs ... delivers a searing taxonomy of loss, and shows the way it leads to a cycle of violence.
PositiveThe Washington PostKonar draws us quickly from that familiar landscape to the bizarre world of the Zoo, focusing on the twins’ special bond ... The novel’s second half takes place after the camp’s liberation. Konar constructs a sinuous plot from the chaos of the postwar landscape. The faster pace frees her from the burden of having the children quite so lyrically narrate their own suffering ... Readers’ reactions to the novel will largely depend on how they feel about touring the Zoo with Konar as guide, rather than learning about this cruelty in a more documentary format — or from an actual survivor.
PositiveThe Washington PostJanowitz’s account of all this is not self-pitying but quite funny, in the David Sedaris tradition ... If you’re looking for profound insight about growing up with difficult parents, about the vagaries of literary life or about the hardships of elder care, this memoir won’t do it for you. Janowitz doesn’t interpret or analyze much ... [a] wry, unpretentious memoir.
PositiveThe Washington PostIn this lively, wide-ranging study, Vanderbilt argues that 'our tastes are so elusive, even to us' ... You May Also Like is full of bizarre tidbits. It’s a dense distillation of current research — and as such, not exactly a breezy read ... Vanderbilt makes a convincing argument about the tyranny of popularity in determining our choices. We like things better when we become more familiar with them ... You May Also Like is intended for a lay audience, and Vanderbilt mostly succeeds in making his summaries of the science clear and engaging.
RaveThe Washington PostSweet Lamb of Heaven is, in short, a book that Richard Dawkins would enjoy immensely. Millet deserves to be celebrated for staking out territory in which the novel can ruminate about current scientific developments. But that makes her work sound dry or polemical, which it is decidedly not. It’s exuberant and playful. That Millet can smuggle her original insights into a structure featuring a rollicking kidnapping plot and deliciously well-drawn characters makes her achievement even more remarkable.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Violet Hour doesn’t really make an argument about ways to die...Instead, the book is a series of impressions and observations, sometimes gossipy, sometimes gently ruminative. She doesn’t even proceed chronologically from diagnosis to last breath. Indeed her stories dart all over the place, from the writers’ childhoods to the present. Except for some puzzling tense shifts, the episodic structure makes sense; if there is an overarching theme in The Violet Hour, it’s that death never comes in a straight line, no matter how hard the writers try to exit with a 'graceful bravura.'
RaveThe Washington PostKang presents her heroine’s metamorphosis crisply and dispassionately, although there are lapses into mood-shattering melodrama ... It’s easy to imagine that in a society as restrictive as Kang’s South Korea, this novel could seem especially daring. For Western readers, what’s more shocking is the unapologetic sexism against which the heroine rebels.