A controlled, entertaining legal thriller about a lawyer dragged into a lawless conflict.

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SECRET UNTO DEATH

Smelser (Truth to Tell, 2016, etc.) tells the story of a small-town lawyer caught up in an escalating feud in this legal thriller.

Grant Russell has a pretty desirable life. The attorney specializes in family law at his father-in-law’s firm in quaint Arbor, Iowa. He lives with his wife and their two young daughters in a farmhouse on a big spread outside of town. One morning, while jogging down his road, Grant comes across two men in a pickup truck knocking over his neighbors’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. When Grant confronts them, they pelt him with a beer can and drive off, leaving him angry and more than a little embarrassed. He tries to forget the incident. He has enough to worry about at work; a colleague’s imminent retirement means he will become a full partner of the firm. What’s more, Lenore Patton, another colleague, has been making it clear that she wishes to sleep with him. When the truck containing the two mailbox vandals cuts off Grant in traffic, he gets the plate numbers and decides to call the sheriff, a decision which he quickly comes to second guess: “If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I’m not comfortable with confrontation and so I avoid it whenever possible. And as I thought about that, I had to ask myself again what the hell I was thinking in my weekend set-to over the mailboxes.” The vandals, cousins and small-time criminals named Rodney and Eugene Rickart, realize who turned them in and begin taking their revenge on Grant with increasingly aggressive acts of destruction. Even worse, Lenore Patton—spurned by Grant’s rejections of her advances—agrees to represent them in a harassment complaint against Grant. What began as a simple matter of mailbox vandalism quickly balloons into something far more sinister, and it won’t end before multiple people are dead. Smelser writes in clean, expressive prose that captures Grant’s increasing paranoia as the plot develops: “I suddenly realized I had no idea what kind of guys these were or what they were capable of. Irresponsible, hard-drinking rednecks, yes. But were they dangerous?” Grant’s insecurity is a great driving force of the narrative and lends some depth to a character who might have otherwise seemed contrived. The author has a knack for getting quickly at characters’ deeper motivations, allowing the reader to connect with them in a way that is not often seen in a legal thriller. Smelser is comfortable allowing his cast to be flawed in mundane ways, which lends the story a whiff of disturbing inevitability. The exception is perhaps the flat, manipulative Lenore Patton. Smelser guides the plot in interesting directions from start to finish, as small decisions and secrets compound to unleash unanticipated and tragic ramifications. Once the reader begins listening to Grant’s tale, they may not be able to walk away.

A controlled, entertaining legal thriller about a lawyer dragged into a lawless conflict.

Pub Date: April 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5301-9990-7

Page Count: 294

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

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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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