A deliciously inventive and historically astute political drama.

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PAWNS

MAGIC BULLET

A historical novel dramatizes volatile disputes within the Kennedy administration over the Vietnam War. 

In 1963, Vietnam is a political tinderbox for President John F. Kennedy. On the one hand, he wants to limit the number of American troops there, but on the other hand, a robust U.S. military presence is necessary to defeat a triumvirate of enemies: Chinese Communists, the Viet Cong, and the belligerent North Vietnamese. In addition, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, insists on persecuting the Buddhist majority, who protest with increasing boldness. Nevertheless, the chief difficulty Kennedy seems to face in Vietnam arises from internecine conflicts within his own administration. A cabal of U.S. government groups, led by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the CIA, works against Kennedy’s wishes in order to depose and potentially assassinate Diem. It’s into these tumultuous circumstances that U.S. Marine Maj. Steven Hebert is sent to Saigon, officially to function as the head of the embassy’s security and unofficially to keep tabs on Kennedy’s enemies in South Vietnam. Hebert encounters a relentless effort to remove Diem for nefarious reasons—Air Force Lt. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, directs that mission partly to ensure the reinvigoration of the opium trade through French Corsican connections. Meanwhile, Thomas Warren, an FBI agent and a victim of an American program to experiment with LSD as an instrument of mind control, investigates Kennedy’s extramarital affairs. This first installment in Kesterson’s (The President’s Gold, 2013, etc.) Pawns series is astonishingly well-researched, the result of that rigor a vivid depiction of historical facts skillfully delivered within a fictional framework. The author is especially adept at explaining the fault lines within a frighteningly fractured presidential administration. Kesterson’s writing is clear and lively and more realistic than literary, which suits the subject matter. But the inner machinations of the American government were baroquely complex and ever shifting, and while the author does an admirable job imposing explanatory order on that chaos, those complications can become onerous to process. It would have been helpful to excise one of the numerous subplots. The one following the FBI’s surveillance of a potential presidential mistress didn’t require as much attention as it received.

A deliciously inventive and historically astute political drama.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9984707-2-6

Page Count: 326

Publisher: Amber Publishers Company

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2018

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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THE GLASS HOTEL

A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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