A depressing read, despite an ending that offers some triumph.

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Kingdom's End

A NOVEL

In Blanchard’s (Mourning Doves After the Fire, 2010) fantasy novel, a large rat colony is ruled by a good king until a rat soldier usurps power and the city hires exterminators.

“Life for the rats was always futile and wretched—an endless pursuit of something to eat.” That’s the case for even the best-run, safest refuges, such as the abandoned movie palace where Indio—a blind mole rat—has long ruled his huge colony. Most rats live only a few years but Indio is 30, giving him wisdom and experience in making rules, handling disputes, giving advice, and assigning punishments for sins such as shirking forage duties. Indio’s soldier rats provide enforcement; one is the high-ranking, ambitious Matthias. He dislikes Nicholas, Indio’s son and heir, and is determined to rule the colony himself someday, even though Hildegard, a fortuneteller rat, has warned him that he won’t live long. Matthias prepares an elaborate plan to surreptitiously eliminate the heir, which succeeds brilliantly; the unsuspecting Indio decides to make Matthias his new heir and guardian until Maxwell, his younger son, comes of age. Matthias repays his king by shoving him into an overflowing sewer, then taking over the colony and imposing draconian rules while ignoring duller responsibilities. He enjoys assigning punishments, though, including the most horrifying: being stuck to flypaper for three days. Soon the city goes to war against rats, giving the colony new survival challenges. Blanchard’s overcrowded animal colony ruled by an iron paw owes an obvious debt to the 1972 novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, to whom the book is dedicated. Like that author, he understands his characters as animals bound by their animal natures, which is a plus for the book as a whole. Blanchard has a harder task, though, because city rats just don’t have the inherent appeal of Watership Down’s wild rabbits: indeed, the huge colony is more than a little horrifying. The novel acknowledges this, but with scene after scene of brutal, bloody, meaningless deaths, Blanchard perhaps succeeds too well in illustrating the “futile and wretched” life of rats.

A depressing read, despite an ending that offers some triumph.

Pub Date: May 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4834-4938-8

Page Count: 338

Publisher: Lulu

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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