EATING THE CHESHIRE CAT

First-novelist Ellis savagely dissects southern social-climbing as it warps the lives of three Alabama girls. It’s clear from the start that there will be no holds barred: in chapter one, at her daughter’s Sweet Sixteen party, Mrs. Summers gets Sarina Summers drunk and smashes the girl’s crooked pinkie fingers with an ax handle’so that the doctor will be forced to fix Sarina’s single less-than-perfect attribute. Mrs. Summers is determined that Sarina will make up for her own divorce and long-ago failure to get into the exclusive Tri Delta sorority at the University of Alabama. Equally obsessed is Mrs. Hicks, the Summers family’s neighbor in an exclusive residential area called Cheshire, whose own efforts to make daughter Nicole the belle of Tuscaloosa are stymied by Nicole’s increasingly pathological love for Sarina. Bitty Jack Carlson, though, is from another world entirely; her parents do maintenance and laundry at Camp Chickasaw in impoverished Summons County, where Tuscaloosa’s elite send their kids for the summer. Nothing but trouble emerges from the three family’s interactions, beginning when 13-year-old Sarina falsely accuses Bitty Jack’s father of molesting her. During college years, well-connected but nerdy Stewart Steptoe becomes a bone of contention between sorority queen Sarina and scholarship student Bitty Jack, while Nicole (who has definitively blown her chances at Tri Delta by chopping off her mother’s ring finger) skulks in the background. Ellis depicts the cruelty of Tuscaloosa’s ingrown social scene with plenty of bite, and her gothic plot twists keep the story moving at a brisk clip. But her severely damaged characters prompt detached sympathy rather than emotional engagement, and the comedy is so black that only the toughest readers are likely to laugh. The hyperbolic denouement dismayingly implicates the only protagonist who seemed to have a chance at escaping this morally repugnant universe. Flawed, but still an impressive debut from a writer who may do even better next time, now that she’s vented some spleen.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-86440-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1999

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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