Strong prose, but this novel’s chief conceit falters.

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The Theory of Talking to Trees

A writer’s friendship with a mentally ill man sustains him through a painful crisis in this novel.

After a hard childhood marked by poverty, hard work, and his parents’ beatings, Stephen Christiansen, 28, has become a man of good fortune. Although he’s not yet 30, he’s already published three well-reviewed novels and works as an editor at Baltimore’s Bessemer Press, owned by his old friend Charlie Shultz. Stephen lives with Phoebe Walker, a nurse, to whom he’s been deeply devoted since he proposed marriage to her seven years ago. She never seems quite ready for a wedding, but she assures him that someday she will be. Nevertheless, Stephen keeps having disturbing, recurring nightmares about a woman on a grassy knoll who keeps fading away from him. One day, Stephen interrupts a street robbery, saves a man’s life, and gets shot himself. He becomes friends with the intended victim, Isaac Sellers, even though they’re very different; Stephen is white and affluent while Isaac describes himself as a “black, fiscally disenfranchised, schizophrenic—mentally ill—man living in America today.” Isaac is a fan of Stephen’s work and an aspiring writer, although he’s troubled by voices that order him to kill himself or his wife. Medication helps calm his symptoms but also makes Isaac, in his own words, “a drudge.” The two men begin a friendship that becomes invaluable to Stephen when his life turns upside-down. Isaac, despite his own struggles, continues to inspire Stephen as a writer and as a man. Dehmelt (The Hard Way Back to Heaven, 2015) displays a wonderful ear for dialogue in this novel, nicely capturing the easy banter between old friends or longtime lovers. He can turn a good phrase, too, as when the radiance drains from a woman’s face “as if she’s waking up the morning after a funeral.” Phoebe’s chief conflict—she can’t live up to Stephen’s fictionalized version of her, because no one could—serves the story and characters well. However, Isaac, despite his importance to the plot, is a weak creation; he sounds exactly like Stephen, possessing no original voice, and he’s also another example of the “magical minority” cliché—an outsider character of color whose sole function is to aid a white protagonist.

Strong prose, but this novel’s chief conceit falters.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2016

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 193

Publisher: Apprentice House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 28, 2016

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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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