Smart and humorous sci-fi about a mysterious sphere—a real ball.

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WATERMELON

An incredible, science-defying black sphere found in a California watermelon field sparks official paranoia, bizarre experiments, and an unlikely love match between a linguist-prodigy and an IT researcher.

In an arch tone and rich, dense, Nabokov-ian language, author Lakritz presents a meandering “report” on a mysterious Fortean find in a California watermelon patch in the extrapolated future Earth of 2024 and the absurdist reactions it provokes. “The Watermelon,” aka the Sphere, is soccer ball–sized, perfectly black (except when it isn’t) and nonreflective (except when it isn’t). Unknown in origin and intent, incapable of being precisely measured, analyzed or penetrated, and occasionally self-multiplying, teleporting and changing in appearance, seemingly just to frustrate observers, it quietly defies fundamental tenets of physics and reality. As two similar baffling artifacts—one rod-shaped, the other crystallike—turn up in unlikely environments in France and Russia, the Watermelon is judged to be a possible national security issue and locked in a secret underground complex in Virginia. There, a nervous U.S. government shanghais numerous eccentrics and experts—a chess grandmaster, a legendary physicist, professional magicians—to try and solve the enigma. The nameless narrator is one such misfit maven, a computer scientist who falls in love with a fellow investigator, a celebrated but emotionally fragile linguistic prodigy. The storyline is low on incident but bursting with erudition and commentaries about Alan Turing, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, encryption mathematics, relationships, Buddhism, the fine line between genius and madness—and a NOVA season’s worth of other deep-thought topics. It’s all relayed in language that straddles science and poetry: “It’s a really elegant design, a web of intricate feedback, of loops on loops on loops. And the control signals that run the loops are the cytokines—Interleukins, Tumor Necrosis, Bradykinin, etc.—a suite of small molecules.” Lakritz even writes a clever Watermelon-ish justification as to why the memoirist’s capacious mind is suddenly so full of esoterica and wonderment, although readers will judge for themselves how much that mitigates the novel’s ambiguous ending.

Smart and humorous sci-fi about a mysterious sphere—a real ball.

Pub Date: May 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1484839546

Page Count: 496

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2014

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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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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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