This well-meant collection offers few realistic solutions.

ZERO TURNED HERO

These illustrated short stories concern ethical dilemmas, fears, and hard choices.

Most of these eight tales are apparently set in the present day, and many of the protagonists are children. In “Tip Top Finds Hope,” the title character, about age 12, is “slow at learning.” He’s lonely and sad, spending many hours sitting on the stoop outside, where kids torment him. His mother just tells him to “speak up for yourself.” He prays for someone to play with. One day, a man appears and gathers the neighborhood kids, reminding them of the golden rule. After that, Tip Top has hope and strength, and the local boys ask him to play. Other stories teach similar morals, as in “Victor Learns a Lesson” (about not saying mean things behind others’ backs) and “The Onion” (don’t shoplift). Some tales also focus on moral choices but feature adults, like “Jennifer’s Luck,” about a 60-year-old woman with unattractive features, such as (puzzlingly) “eyes shaped like peanuts.” Children mock her; adults pity her. An angel, whose fate is tied to Jennifer’s, offers her a choice: She can be young again and ugly or pretty and old. She chooses youth at first, then beauty, but despite the advantages of each (Jennifer loves it when construction workers whistle at her), she decides to accept herself as she originally was. When a little boy starts in on her looks, she sneers at him: “Are you sure you have a face to be proud of?” The boy’s friend takes her side, and Jennifer feels a great inner peace. The final work, “The Stone King,” is set in a mythical kingdom where its rich and tyrannical ruler learns the error of his ways through love and forgiveness. These clear, well-intentioned stories deliver some intriguing situations and diverse characters. But as is in common with many writers of morality tales, Frazier (Decisions, 2009, etc.) presents solutions that tend to be unconvincingly simplistic. For example, it usually takes more than one talk to transform a neighborhood of bullies. And getting over bad dreams will surely require more than the one encouraging speech and special talisman featured in “Nightmares.” Meanwhile, “The End of an Era,” in which a boy’s father has forced him to arm-wrestle since the age of 6, seems to glorify aggression. The parent’s treatment makes the boy strong enough, at 14, to challenge and win a bloody victory from the school bullies taking his money. The next day, “word had gotten out that I was crazy,” and his cash was safe. Is this the golden rule? In addition, the author’s dialogue is sometimes stilted, and she overuses ellipses, as in this example from “Victor Learns a Lesson”: “ ‘I don’t really like Lorrance…with his fat self.’ I think he has an odor.” The rather flat, uncredited illustrations often render human figures clumsily, as when an ice cream stick thrown at Tip Top appears to be jutting from his head like an off-center unicorn’s horn. A few pictures have more energy, and the images do show the cast’s varied skin tones.

This well-meant collection offers few realistic solutions.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64398-052-2

Page Count: 88

Publisher: LitFire Publishing

Review Posted Online: Sept. 9, 2019

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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