A brisk but bumpy college tale.

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SILKIE

WORLD ONE, WORLD TWO

A debut novel focuses on a professor’s obsession with a troubled student.

Rothgery presents English professor Stephen Mollgaard. Stephen teaches at a college in Oregon. As a divorced father of two, he must travel to California to see his children. He also suffers from occasional seizures and has a troubling memory of seeing an eagle trapped in a wooden box as a boy. Nevertheless, his problems pale in comparison to those of some of his students as well as the various homeless people who live in his town. One such distressed student (who is also occasionally homeless) is a young woman named Silkie. Silkie’s origins are mysterious, though in time Stephen learns that she has a daughter, likes books, and suffers from a mental illness that she refers to as “schizoaffective something or other.” In her own strange way, Silkie manages to get Stephen to look at his world anew. But why is he so taken with Silkie? Does he want to protect her? Sleep with her? Or is he yearning for something else entirely? The narrative rolls along as Silkie appears and disappears from Stephen’s life. His journey will lead him everywhere from Boise to a local bead shop, though in the end he must, of course, decide what to do with himself. As one might expect from an English professor, Stephen’s odyssey involves a great deal of words to go with all the action. He mentions Stephen Crane and Foucault, to name just two authors. Then there are newspaper articles and writings from past students that he meticulously files. Like many of the story’s characters, he also displays an odd penchant for speaking with ellipses. Take Stephen’s explanation after he receives a peculiar phone call about Silkie: “I still think…it was her…herself…who called.” The results make for some weird exchanges. How many ellipses-extended sentiments need readers wade through to get to the heart of the matter? What keeps the narrative swiftly moving is Silkie. Stephen seems destined to pass or fail at this curious time in his life (he will remain a mild-mannered English professor or he won’t), but Silkie is a wild card. Just about anything could become of her. If readers think Stephen will merely help ease her into a domestic existence, they are certainly in for some surprises. As Stephen admits, “I needed her. But what would I do with her?” Stephen’s object of fascination is certainly elusive, yet the tale misses opportunities for more intrigue and impact. At one point, he babysits Silkie’s daughter. It is a comically awkward situation, though it could have been played for bigger laughs. While the unpaid babysitting gig leads the protagonist to meet more of the area’s homeless, their stories are not particularly revealing. Stephen winds up learning a lot in the end but not as much as he could have.    

A brisk but bumpy college tale.

Pub Date: March 31, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62652-759-1

Page Count: 556

Publisher: Mill City Press, Inc.

Review Posted Online: March 11, 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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