A lightweight but feel-good parable for fans of angel-encounter stories.

THERE IS ONLY ONE

A short tale about a man whose life is changed by a mysterious encounter at the foot of a mountain.

Joseph, the narrator of this short novella by Johnston and Ben, is sitting atop a mountain when he’s struck by a series of sudden realizations: life is short; the meaning of existence, murky; the universe can often seem unfair (“What was fair about someone living ninety years and having a great life, while someone else died early from childhood cancer?”); and he’s been ignoring all of these concerns too long. He feels a new clarity as he hikes back down the mountain, but alarming physical symptoms quickly overtake him. He’s feeling terrible when he reaches the bottom and encounters a stranger who calmly informs him he’s having a heart attack but also reassures him: “Everything happens for a reason and everything will work out.” His friends and girlfriend rally around him, and although he’s initially depressed, he survives. When he’s recovered enough to return to the mountain, Joseph seeks out the mysterious stranger in hopes of gaining insights he’s sure the man possesses. And he’s not wrong. He meets the same man, and for the remainder of the novella, the stranger teaches him about meditation, reincarnation (“Creation is precise….If you shoot and kill someone, you will be shot and killed”), and the true nature of Christianity. Their eventual parting is calm but final, and Joseph is left to ponder everything he’s learned and come to some fundamental breakthroughs of his own (he realizes that “knowing God and deepening your relationship with Him is all that matters”). The combination of Christianity and Eastern mysticism that Johnston and Ben present here is intriguing though somewhat underdeveloped; Joseph never experiences any serious doubts about the stranger, and the stranger never hints as to why Joseph would be singled out for such an extraordinary visitation. Both Joseph and his mysterious instructor have a tendency to talk in clichés, and despite his assurances to the contrary, Joseph isn’t radically changed by his supernatural experiences. The story’s pace, however, is quick enough to keep many readers’ interest.

A lightweight but feel-good parable for fans of angel-encounter stories.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-1491755235

Page Count: 58

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2015

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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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