Unlike shooting stars, Sedgwick’s yearning protagonists seem unable or unwilling to “shower the world with light.”

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THE COMET SEEKERS

Haunted characters struggle to find fulfillment.

In her ambitious but flawed debut novel, journalist, editor, and former research physicist Sedgwick leaps through time, from 1066 to the present, following the trajectories of her characters’ lives as various comets surge gloriously through the night skies. She focuses on four main characters: cousins Róisín and Liam are star-crossed lovers both because of their consanguinity and their unbridgeable differences. Róisín, an astronomer, wants to travel the world researching the cosmos; Liam is committed to staying on his family’s farm. The second pair is a mother and son, Severine and François. Even as a child, François longed to explore far-off places, from South American jungles to Antarctica’s “wild emptiness”; but Severine will not leave their native Bayeux, France, because she is surrounded there by 11 ghosts from her family’s long past. These ghosts are the novel’s liveliest characters: playful, teasing, and so comforting that Severine cannot live without them; they are more crucial to her than François. “Why should she have to choose,” she asks herself, “between her ghosts and her son?” Among the ghosts, Severine is especially attached to her grandmother, “who everyone thought was crazy, who made the world come alive, whose smile made Severine feel special, and loved.” Because Granny’s ghost treats her like a child, Severine seems infantilized—or, maybe, crazy. François can hardly make sense of his strange mother. Rather than allowing her characters to evolve, Sedgwick belabors their predicaments in chapter after chapter. The image of shooting stars suggests a theme: as Róisín explains, “All those stars we see...they’re dead already. They have exploded, rejected everything that they were, and the raw components, the elements they were made of, that is where life comes from.” But this idea of transformation is only barely hinted at, and, except for Severine, the characters persist in sadness.

Unlike shooting stars, Sedgwick’s yearning protagonists seem unable or unwilling to “shower the world with light.”

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-244876-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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