scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Book Reviews

Characters longing to grow up


By Lindsay Hunter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

240 pp., $25

Lindsay Hunter writes at a speedy clip, short bursts of narrative that we inhale as we go along. A talent she honed as a flash-fiction writer, it transfers beautifully to her first novel, “Ugly Girls.” Her characters — not only the restless adolescents at the book’s center, but pretty much all of them — are bored to the point of badly damaging their lives, yet they are never boring.

Beautiful Perry and shaven-skulled Baby Girl (real name Dayna) are best friends, teenagers who like to liven their dull evenings by “thuggin” — steal a car, start a fire, that sort of thing. They’re growing up too fast and not fast enough, trying on façades of harshness and disdain.


Each has adults who love her, but only one person is watching them carefully: a scary neighborhood creep whose repellent qualities aren’t so evident online. Hello, new Facebook friend.


By Thomas H. McNeely

Gival, 260 pp., paperback, $20

Children of 1970s divorce, your book is here. Glib but true: In “Ghost Horse,” his lucid debut novel, Cambridge author Thomas H. McNeely has captured something harrowing about an era of chaos and unease.

“Tell me the truth,” 11-year-old Buddy’s mother says to his father, who isn’t coming home to live with them. “Tell me what’s really going on.” But it’s Buddy, an only child, who’s more often pumped for intel. The various factions in his family push and pull, asking him to lie or spy, carry messages, take sides.

Fantasy encroaches on reality, and art is a vital escape from insecurity and omnipresent dread. If Buddy gets good at betrayal, who taught him that?


By Nguyen Nhat Anh

Translated, from the Vietnamese, by William Naythons

Overlook, 160 pp., $21.95


The American publisher is calling it a novel, but Nguyen Nhat Anh’s Vietnamese bestseller, “Ticket to Childhood,” is more of a longish short story. And, while we’ve blurred the division lately between literature for children and grown-ups, this one seems an awkward fit even for the middle ground.

Now nearing 50, the narrator is recalling what life was like when he was 8, back when he and his friends possessed the invaluable “power to imagine the world differently.” The kids staged mischievous rebellions against parents who seem straight out of the “Father Knows Best” era, only more conservative.

The point, of course, is the importance of remembering the restless dreams of youth. But in William Naythons’s translation, the story’s old-fashioned language is so simple and dependent on cliches that its insights, too, seem commonplace.


By Atticus Lish

Tyrant, 250 pp., paperback, $15

“Did you know that there is a place that is better than any other?” the mother asks her little girl, Zou Lei, at home in the Chinese desert. “It’s a long way off out there, a good three months on horseback at least. The officials don’t tell anyone about it because they want it for themselves. Still, people know it’s there.”

Is that what Zou Lei was hoping for when she made her way to America? Undocumented in New York, what she finds is not easy abundance but toil and poverty. She also finds Brad Skinner, an American just out of the Army after three tours in Iraq. His wounded brain is filled with gruesome memories of violence and loss. But Zou Lei’s father was a soldier too. “I love your war,” she tells Skinner.


In this dark and aching romance, a happy ending seems too much to hope for, and yet we do.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at