Uneven, hectic, sometimes decidedly adolescent. Nonetheless, the author gets points for audacity, and for reinventing the...

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DAMNED IF YOU DO

A brash and often gruesomely funny debut novel from England, offering the first-person testimony of a zombie.

The nameless narrator is the loser in a lottery held by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War) to find a successor to Hades, Death's assistant, who has been assassinated. Removed from his grave in Oxford, where he has been residing comfortably, if without much stimulation, for several years, our hero learns that he is to be given a tryout, lasting for one week, during which he'll accompany Death on his rounds. If he fails, he'll be sent back to his grave for good. Pythonesque slapstick abounds in subsequent developments. Despite their grisly looks, the Horsemen are more like squabbling career bureaucrats than supernatural figures. They've given up horses in favor of battered cars. They use computers to track their clients. They tend to blame each other when their assignments go wrong—as they often do. An attempt to release a new plague germ during a screening of (what else?) Bergman's The Seventh Seal fails, and Death greatly annoys the audience by laughing uproariously at his portrayal on screen. The Four Horsemen constantly try to outmaneuver each other and impress ‘The Chief,’ who is never seen and communicates only through terse memos. Over the course of his trial week, the narrator begins to recover his past: he was a private investigator, murdered by his lover's husband. Musings on his adoration of this woman, and on his otherwise unremarkable life, tend to be lengthy and tiresome. But his desperate scheme to quit the Horsemen and reenter life—which involves (of course) challenging Death to a chess match—is rather touching.

Uneven, hectic, sometimes decidedly adolescent. Nonetheless, the author gets points for audacity, and for reinventing the Four Horsemen as a perpetual vaudeville act.

Pub Date: July 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-312-26288-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2000

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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