An unfortunately bland sketch of addiction, millennial listlessness, and the redemptive quality of craftsmanship with some...

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THE BOATBUILDER

An opioid addict–turned–apprentice boat builder tries to find himself on the Northern California coast.

We meet 27-year-old “digital refugee” Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg at a low point in his life: After a concussion led to an opioid addiction, then rehab, he has moved to Talinas, a town on the Northern California coast, where he hopes to establish “a sober life”—instead he’s breaking into houses for drugs. But within pages, Berg cleans himself up—at least a little. He gets a job, manages to wean himself temporarily off pills, and then apprentices himself to Alejandro Vega, a boat builder who tells him things like “stop thinking about the result. Stop wanting [the work] to be over right away and I promise everything will go better.” Alejandro is “a genius,” his mind “borderless and kinetic,” and under his influence Berg learns not just to work with wood, but to “get outside of himself.” But will Alejandro’s healing influence be enough to combat the lurking urges of addiction? Gumbiner’s debut is an underachieving redemption tale, and its failures are familiar to that particular genus of didactic literature—namely: The difficulties from which the characters need redeeming feel like excuses for the author to show us how exactly redemption can be had. Gumbiner could have sidestepped this with detail, by diving deeply into his human subjects—but his novel, like its characters, aspires toward simplicity rather than complexity. The result is that everything—the problem, the solutions, the quirky Northern California vibe, even the potentially fascinating fact that Berg robbed Alejandro’s house before later becoming his apprentice—feels like a plot device, and thus unconvincing, one-dimensional, bland. There is the occasional arresting line; for example, the skin on an addict’s face looks like it has been “stretched tight and then stapled across his jawline.” But the book is mostly composed of apathetic sentences (a supporting character’s storytelling is “disjointed and difficult to follow, like an avant-garde novel”), vapid dialogue (“ ‘What’s up, Berg?…’ ‘Hi Kenneth…do you remember my girlfriend, Nell?’ ‘Hi,’ Nell said. ‘Oh hi,” Kenneth said”), and clichéd profundity (“the problem was he didn’t know what he wanted”).

An unfortunately bland sketch of addiction, millennial listlessness, and the redemptive quality of craftsmanship with some Northern California flare.

Pub Date: May 22, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944211-55-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

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A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

A WEEK AT THE SHORE

A middle-aged woman returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing father, confronting many painful secrets from her past.

When Mallory Aldiss gets a call from a long-ago boyfriend telling her that her elderly father has been gallivanting around town with a gun in his hand, Mallory decides it’s time to return to the small Rhode Island town that she’s been avoiding for more than a decade. Mallory’s precocious 13-year-old daughter, Joy, is thrilled that she'll get to meet her grandfather at long last, and an aunt, too, and she'll finally see the place where her mother grew up. When they arrive in Bay Bluff, it’s barely a few hours before Mallory bumps into her old flame, Jack, the only man she’s ever really loved. Gone is the rebellious young person she remembers, and in his place stands a compassionate, accomplished adult. As they try to reconnect, Mallory realizes that the same obstacle that pushed them apart decades earlier is still standing in their way: Jack blames Mallory’s father for his mother’s death. No one knows exactly how Jack’s mother died, but Jack thinks a love affair between her and Mallory’s father had something to do with it. As Jack and Mallory chase down answers, Mallory also tries to repair her rocky relationships with her two sisters and determine why her father has always been so hard on her. Told entirely from Mallory’s perspective, the novel has a haunting, nostalgic quality. Despite the complex and overlapping layers to the history of Bay Bluff and its inhabitants, the book at times trudges too slowly through Mallory’s meanderings down Memory Lane. Even so, Delinsky sometimes manages to pick up the pace, and in those moments the beauty and nuance of this complicated family tale shine through. Readers who don’t mind skimming past details that do little to advance the plot may find that the juicier nuggets and realistically rendered human connections are worth the effort.

A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-11951-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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