At times indulgent but a highly enjoyable debut novel.

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YEAR OF THE POETS

In Ballard’s highly readable, character-driven debut novel, the summer of 1976 proves messy, seductive and life-changing for celebrated poet, wanderer and serial womanizer Arthur Honeyman and all who enter his orbit.

Created as a gesture of personal liberation by farmer’s widow Amelia, the Davenport Summer Retreat for Artists in Michigan is aptly named. The poets and assorted others who have converged on this 100-year-old family farm in 1976 are all in retreat, emotionally and from rocky affairs, troubled marriages, familial relationships, hard choices, former failures and successes. Arthur Honeyman, 59, itinerant carpenter and renowned poet, has hit a fallow stretch. (His lauded earlier work, fueled by rage and bitterness stoked by his now ex-wife, is juicily critiqued by Amelia’s staid son Charlie as “compressed, excruciating blasts of words—opaque stanzas like shrapnel.”) Honeyman also builds benches stenciled with quotes by the likes of Mao Zedong and Janis Joplin, waffles over reuniting with estranged son Pablo, and juggles affairs with married Samantha and nubile poetry phenom Flora. In a delightful little visual, Ballard describes Flora’s painted toes, wiggling in the grass “like the carapaces of hyper blue beetles,” although the author’s fondness for colorful simile can lead to such proximal overindulgences as “the Poet’s bags sat half-packed, lazing like patient hounds at the foot of their master’s bed” and “the farmhouse squatting like a Buddha in the gauzy twilight.” Ballard’s frequent referral to Honeyman as “the Poet,” without a discernable tongue-in-cheek tone, is another distraction. Is the seeming conceit meant to underscore Honeyman’s stature with others? That he lives solely for his art? Is it a sly nod to 19th-century Romanticism? The intent isn’t clear. Ballard maintains his narrative’s robust energy, however, even when plunging lengthily into character-study mode. Over the course of sexual pairings and road trips as far afield as Mexico, lives intertwine on and off the farm, and everyone at the retreat—including pothead and religious college dropout Gideon and Charlie’s secretly far left–leaning girlfriend, Natalia—searches for (and finds, to one extent or other) inspiration, affirmation or at least clarity of purpose.

At times indulgent but a highly enjoyable debut novel.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 431

Publisher: Loose Leaves Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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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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