A beautifully written coming-of-age story from a promising author.

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THE SHAPE OF THE ATMOSPHERE

In Dainty’s debut novel set in the late 1950s, a 16-year-old girl grapples with personal loss in unimaginable conditions after her troubled, alcoholic mother forces her into a mental hospital.

After the tragic death of her sister and father in an accident in October 1957 (the day after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1), Gertrude “Gertie” MacLarsen is sent to Willow Estate Sanatorium. During Gertie’s stay, she faces her grief and her mother’s rejection, forms relationships with others, and eventually finds a sense of community under the most unlikely circumstances. At the same time, she witnesses horrors, including abuse, suicide, and rape, and notes the uneven power dynamics between the patients and hospital staff. But she also finds friendship, love, and a vision for the future away from her tragic past and broken family. Dainty’s descriptions of the treatment of mental health patients are alarming; several particularly disturbing scenes depict unethical therapies in detail. However, the author counters the dark content with poetic prose, as when Gertie notes that “My name...sounded like someone had taken a bag of smooth sounds and smashed it against the wall until nothing but edges remained.” The book also offers a well-developed, layered cast of characters with unique back stories, including Elizabeth Jacobsen, Gertie’s confidante who’s been at Willow Estate for more than five years; and Clement “Pope” Marshall, a young man with a stutter who becomes Gertie’s love interest. When Gertie realizes that everyone, from her fellow patients to the ward’s nurses, has a voice that should be heard, she creates a publication that circulates around the ward. After one issue featuring anonymous submissions falls into the wrong hands, Gertie’s journey shifts from survival to a fierce reclaiming of life. Although the concept of a teenage girl winding up in a mental hospital isn’t exactly new in YA, the specificity of this story’s time period enables the author to tackle it in a fresh way. Sputnik 1, for example, remains a symbolic anchor throughout the story, acting as Gertie’s greatest connection to her deceased father. Dainty successfully weaves in concepts of space exploration, stars, and the vastness of the universe, often using them as metaphors for her protagonist’s tribulations.

A beautifully written coming-of-age story from a promising author.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-945502-10-1

Page Count: 252

Publisher: Pandamoon Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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