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COCKFOSTERS

Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.

Time is the essence of this spare, subtle short story collection.

Two middle-aged women, friends from high school who haven’t seen each other for years, ride the train together from central London to the end of the line to recover a lost pair of reading glasses and, along with them, their old, easy friendship and spontaneous sense of adventure. A long-married couple, their relationship buffeted by bitterness and betrayal, find themselves the youngest travelers on a package tour to see Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in Berlin and, as the shared experience crumbles the emotional wall between them built by entrenched grudges and fears, find their way back to each other as old age approaches. A prosperous lawyer in London’s financial district—on his second marriage, to a woman around the age of the daughters from his first marriage—takes the teenage son of an acquaintance to lunch to persuade him that law would be a wise course of study, yet, as the lawyer reflects back on the course of his own life, his choices, and their consequences, its wisdom seems less clear. The nine stories in Simpson's (In-Flight Entertainment, 2012, etc.) sharply written collection carry titles that reflect a sense of place (“Moscow,” “Arizona,” “Berlin,” etc.). But, perhaps to a greater degree, the stories concern time—the effects of its passage, the disappointments it brings, the opportunities for growth it offers. Too, they grapple with issues of gender—especially incisively in the sly, clever “Erewhon”—and touch on the topics of art, literature, and economic and social inequality. And although Simpson’s stories are timely and rooted in their British milieu—strongly evoking the personal and cultural struggles of today’s middle class—they are also far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human.

Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.

Pub Date: June 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49307-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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