A fantasy tale with unforgettable characters and a convincing, insightful message.

THE BOOK OF DOG

In Benobi’s (After, 2005, as Claire Tristram) allegorical novel, a mysterious toxin turning people into animals turns out to be a sign of the Apocalypse.

There’s something ominous about a yellow fog rolling into California from the south. It suddenly appears at the same time that Stella King, a pregnant young woman, runs away from her aunt’s home (her mother is in jail and her father’s not in the picture). Stella hitches a ride with a woman named Margie Peach to Nethalem on San Francisco Bay, where her boyfriend, Lix Tetrax, who’s also the baby’s father, is waiting. Meanwhile, a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control identifies the yellow cloud as a chemical agent called Agent-T, which is also cropping up throughout the rest of the country. Its origins are unknown, but it’s physically transforming people into animals (who retain their human minds), and girls and women appear to be particularly susceptible. Margie, for example, becomes a dog, while waitress Wanda Lubiejewski’s unexpected metamorphosis into a bear scares her cheating husband into arming himself for protection. Stella, meanwhile, hears stories of people rioting, cities on fire, and “Angels” and “Beasts” engaged in war on Earth. Fate puts Stella, Margie, and Wanda together, along with U.S. Air Force Maj. Eureka Yamanaka, caregiver Mary Mbwembwe, and Nethalem villager Josefina Guzman. All undergo changes, physical and otherwise; Wanda, for instance, garners new emotional strength as her preteen daughter’s protector. But the End of Days is upon them, as the book of Revelation has already foretold. Soon, the six women will face off against the being who may be behind the Apocalypse. Benobi’s story offers wonderfully surreal moments rich with metaphor, as when signs of Agent-T’s approach create an atmosphere of foreboding; Stella has conversations with her unborn child, who offers warnings about people before Stella encounters them. These scenes are complemented by the author’s illustrations throughout, which resemble sketches from an artist’s notebook. The pictures, while vibrant and fully comprehensible, are typically unrealistic, depicting Mary with thin, squiggly arms, for instance, with an eye floating above the rest of her face. Benobi also fills her pages with powerful themes, particularly exploring the ways that a male-dominated society treats and views women. These can sometimes be too on-the-nose; for example, Wanda believes people will react to her bear self with fear and hate, unnecessarily adding that it’s what “humans often do when confronted with a creature that they can’t control or dominate.” Nevertheless, such comments have merit, as when Stella notes that women in many religions tend to get “the short end.” Overall, Benobi’s prose is straightforward and concise, with frequent instances of poetry: “Dawn was raw at the edges and the air smelled fresh and washed clean….Life at the moment was rich and full of promise.” The plot effectively establishes how the various players’ paths are destined to intersect, and anticipation of these distinctive women’s inevitable interactions propels the story forward.

A fantasy tale with unforgettable characters and a convincing, insightful message.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9996546-1-3

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Vegetablian Books

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2018

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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