Existential dread takes on new meaning in a fantastical tale of shifting realities, second-chance romance, and unwanted...

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MS. NEVER

In Dodds’ (Watershed, 2017, etc.) novel, an office worker with supernatural powers begins a relationship with a telecommunications tycoon whose dark, metaphysical secret is equally startling.

Farya Navurian lived on a version of Earth in which the glorious Greater Majestic Anointed Commonwealth of Ohio spanned a continent and her famous astronaut father was a deep-space ambassador. However, it didn’t last because Farya has a mysterious, apocalyptic ability: If she lets her attention wander and daydreams, tracts of reality simply diminish and dissolve, as if they’d never happened. Formerly large cities, such as Camden, New York, are suddenly unremarkable towns, and Ohio becomes a mundane Rust Belt state. During these paradigm shifts, millions of people vanish; only a handful (notably, Farya’s surprisingly easygoing best pal, Ethan) retain memories of incredible, lost cultures and loved ones. Guilt-ridden Farya winds up a downtrodden Jersey City office worker. Meanwhile, wealthy Metacom boss Bryan Lomoigne faces a dilemma. He wittily included a fine-print clause in his company’s cellphone contracts that grants Metacom “Non-Mortal Element Rights” from anyone signing up for their cheap gadgets; in other words, his customers sell their souls to him. Some buy them back at heavy cost, but it’s basically a side hustle for Bryan, who’s the son of a deceased, dissolute rock star who fathered a large number of children. Faced with middle age and a failing marriage, Bryan wants to sell his business and devote himself to buying back his father’s song catalog. But Metacom has unusual business partners who have alarming methods of enforcing their will. When Bryan and Farya meet at a record swap—Thelonious Monk tunes help her maintain her equilibrium—they embark on a relationship despite the considerable paranormal baggage they both try to keep out of sight.  Dodds offers a transfixing, fantastic narrative that first seems like two separate, weird tales. It’s a fabulist, careening plot that’s reminiscent of the late-career, anything-goes fiction of Kurt Vonnegut (such as 1997’s Timequake). The author executes the story with exacting, direct prose and characters who live and breathe in the mind even as their own realities seem built on shifting ground. He keeps the tale moving forward with sublime aplomb even though, at numerous points, the material could have easily gone off the rails. The vanished, fondly recalled Greater Majestic Anointed Commonwealth of Ohio, for example, is only sparingly hinted at; it wasn’t a paradise, but it certainly made for an interesting home address. Although that particular bit of business might serve as a nice metaphor for the mindsets of imaginative SF/fantasy readers who long to escape dreary daily reality, this is too broad and rich a work to pigeonhole as a collection of inside jokes. Instead, it shows great psychological and philosophical nuance, ruminating on relationships, family, commerce, art, sacrifice—and reading the fine print of company terms and conditions. Overall, readers will find it to be an exceptional work.  

Existential dread takes on new meaning in a fantastical tale of shifting realities, second-chance romance, and unwanted business partners.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9721805-9-7

Page Count: 402

Publisher: Dodds Amalgamated

Review Posted Online: Oct. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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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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