Though it’s difficult to invest in the heroine, this whaling ship narrative rights itself with meticulous research and...

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The Flensing Knife

Life on a whaling ship is alternately difficult and delightful in Douthart’s debut novel chiefly narrated by one captain’s new wife.

The year is 1859, and the New England whaling town of Falmouth is home to many families with members at sea. Seventeen-year-old Celia Alden, who lives with her widowed mother and older brother, Edward, considers herself lucky not to be one of them. When Edward’s friend Capt. Caleb Jones begins to court her, Celia is quickly swept off her feet. Unable to stomach the idea of waiting behind while Caleb embarks on a whaling expedition, she decides to marry him—but only if he allows her to join him on his ship, Patience, for its three-year voyage. Once at sea, Celia quickly realizes the journey will be much more than she bargained for, as she endures both the dangers inherent to a whaling ship—from seasickness to shattered limbs—and the more intimate challenges involved with being the inexperienced wife of a relative stranger on a vessel with no privacy. Though the Patience’s voyage is captivatingly wrought, Celia’s characterization is shallow and sometimes unbelievable. Her quick about-face from apathy to love toward Caleb (and the evolution of their relationship thereafter) feels unearned, in part because she’s given few defining traits before their entanglement. Several supporting characters capture more interest, from Celia’s mother, a widow determined to keep her terminal illness hidden, to Domingo Arruda, a runaway slave now serving as third mate, to Capt. Jones, who questions the strict rules enacted by his Quaker father. It’s unfortunate that Celia herself lacks a stronger back story, as deeper characterization would have made her journey more compelling. Still, Douthart’s narrative, which benefits from extensive research into real-life ships’ logs and other primary source material, shines in the small details, like the “small silken buttons” on Celia’s wedding dress and the “two huge try pots” on the Patience, which stand waiting for the whale hunts to begin.

Though it’s difficult to invest in the heroine, this whaling ship narrative rights itself with meticulous research and attention to detail.

Pub Date: July 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-692-44180-0

Page Count: 422

Publisher: Lonely Cloud Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2015

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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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