Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it’s offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

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SWAMPLANDIA!

A debut novel from Russell (stories: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006) about female alligator wrestlers, ghost boyfriends and a theme park called World of Darkness.

Ava Bigtree is experiencing some hard times in making it through her childhood. Her mother Hilola, a world-class alligator wrestler at the family tourist compound Swamplandia! (which Russell always writes with an exclamation point), died of cancer, so business has fallen off considerably. Perhaps even more significant, World of Darkness recently opened and started draining away customers from Swamplandia! Because the Bigtree family business was on an island off the coast of Florida, no one in the family had much experience with mainland life. Ava, who narrates roughly half the book, would like to follow in her mother’s alligator-wrestling footsteps, but her age prevents her from reviving the business. Her brother Kiwi joins the forces of evil, as it were, by taking a job at World of Darkness—one of its big draws is the Leviathan, a ride in which tourists slide down a seemingly saliva-soaked tongue of a giant whale—but also by getting the education he lacked on the island. Kiwi hopes to send money home but finds after meeting all the exploitative fees charged by his boss that he has almost nothing left. Ava’s sister Ossie (short for Osceola—she’s named after the Florida Indian tribe) starts paying close attention to the results of a Ouija board, finds an old dredge in the swamps near her home, and goes off with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, who had died in the swamps years before. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the Bigtree clan, known as the Chief, abandons the whole sorry business and finds a job at a mainland casino. The narrative becomes a quest of sorts as Ava, accompanied by a bizarre character called the Bird Man, poles through the swamps in a mythic attempt to locate her sister. Throughout this search, Russell evokes archetypal journeys through underworlds and across the Styx.

Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it’s offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26399-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2010

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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