Lizzie Skurnick

Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for Jezebel.com, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

As a storyteller, Nathan Englander has always excelled at showing the cracks and fissures in insular groups that seem, to the outsider, homogenous: Orthodox Jews, Holocaust victims, even other writers (one of the most fractious tribes in existence). In a singular example from the short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," a survivor, upon meeting a man whose number indicates he was three people ahead in line when they were tattooed, irritably calls his fellow sufferer a "cutter."

If you lie to save your marriage, does it truly count as a betrayal? This is the question at the heart of Stay With Me, a debut novel about a young couple's infertility, set among the coups and counter-coups of early '90s Nigeria. It's a time when thieves and rapists send polite letters to the neighborhood warning they'll be arriving soon; where the news can coolly announce one head of state in the morning and another by night.

It's hard to imagine how a scene of a mother buying her child crackers from a vending machine could be one of the more terrifying things in contemporary fiction. But that is the case with Gin Phillips' Fierce Kingdom, in which shooters take over a zoo at dusk, forcing those left behind to hide or be picked off along with the penned-in animals.

If every era gets the historical fiction it deserves, we have been good indeed. From the transcendent psychological rummagings of Hilary Mantel to the gooey pleasures of Philippa Gregory, we can set aside flowery bodice-rippers (not that there's anything wrong with those) and view the dusty figures through lenses literary, pop culture-y, or near-pornographic.

Lizzie Skurnick writes the "That Should Be a Word" column for the New York Times Magazine.

England has always reveled in its drawing-room dramas, from Jane Austen's social minefields to E.M. Forster's Howards End to Upstairs, Downstairs — and yes, the blockbuster Downton Abbey.