Eight more superb stories from a talented pen.

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The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street

STORIES

Uncontrollable forces (including the absurd, the magical, and the tragic) upset carefully ordered lives in this short story collection that won the 2016 Howling Bird Press fiction prize.

Appel (Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, 2015, etc.), a physician, attorney, and bioethicist with multiple degrees, collects literary prizes the way some other authors collect rejection slips, and for good reason. This latest collection again offers well-constructed stories that sharply but compassionately observe people trying to make sense of life’s disruptions. In the title story, for example, Quincy Marder, a “steady and dependable” copyright lawyer, gets a call from his elderly mother’s neighbor about her backyard topless sunbathing: “ ‘Your Ma’s still out there,’ Otten complained. ‘And let me tell you, it’s no pretty sight.’ ” Quincy tries reasoning with his mother, pleading with her, and buying new backyard fences for the neighbors; his mom, Ilene, responds by upping the ante—inviting her friends to play topless mahjong in the front yard. Finally, she’s arrested. At the chilly police station, Ilene accepts Quincy’s coat, and he sees her differently: wrapped up, “she looked decades older, sexless, nearly lifeless—her body the sort of breathing shell that you might pass on a public street without even taking notice.” That’s what people want of old women, readers understand: to disappear and spare others from having to feel disgust and fear about their aging bodies. Ilene’s nonchalance now seems like no stunt but rather a radically self-affirming gesture. Other stories come to similarly thoughtful, often wrenching conclusions. In “Toward Uncharted Waters,” for example, a childless couple is about to start an adventurous retirement when the wife becomes a quadriplegic. Walter cares well for Marcy aboard the boat they’d planned to sail to Tierra del Fuego, but then he meets an attractive woman and wants her: “Loving Pam would mean sleeping with a body, while loving Marcy meant caring for a head.” But, as always with Appel, it’s not that simple—and Walter’s final choice is based on love of a more complicated kind.

Eight more superb stories from a talented pen.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9961952-1-8

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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