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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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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King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

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THE INSTITUTE

The master of modern horror returns with a loose-knit parapsychological thriller that touches on territory previously explored in Firestarter and Carrie.

Tim Jamieson is a man emphatically not in a hurry. As King’s (The Outsider, 2018, etc.) latest opens, he’s bargaining with a flight attendant to sell his seat on an overbooked run from Tampa to New York. His pockets full, he sticks out his thumb and winds up in the backwater South Carolina town of DuPray (should we hear echoes of “pray”? Or “depraved”?). Turns out he’s a decorated cop, good at his job and at reading others (“You ought to go see Doc Roper,” he tells a local. “There are pills that will brighten your attitude”). Shift the scene to Minneapolis, where young Luke Ellis, precociously brilliant, has been kidnapped by a crack extraction team, his parents brutally murdered so that it looks as if he did it. Luke is spirited off to Maine—this is King, so it’s got to be Maine—and a secret shadow-government lab where similarly conscripted paranormally blessed kids, psychokinetic and telepathic, are made to endure the Skinnerian pain-and-reward methods of the evil Mrs. Sigsby. How to bring the stories of Tim and Luke together? King has never minded detours into the unlikely, but for this one, disbelief must be extra-willingly suspended. In the end, their forces joined, the two and their redneck allies battle the sophisticated secret agents of The Institute in a bloodbath of flying bullets and beams of mental energy (“You’re in the south now, Annie had told these gunned-up interlopers. She had an idea they were about to find out just how true that was"). It’s not King at his best, but he plays on current themes of conspiracy theory, child abuse, the occult, and Deep State malevolence while getting in digs at the current occupant of the White House, to say nothing of shadowy evil masterminds with lisps.

King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-1056-7

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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