A sad but laudable story of a boy who endures more than he should have to bear.

A HERO DREAMS

In Ristau’s coming-of-age debut novel, a young boy, distraught over his father’s death, has trouble fitting in at summer camp, where he has unsettling visions and is comforted by a disembodied voice.

By 1976, as America celebrates its bicentennial, 10-year-old Ricky Williamson hasn’t quite recovered from losing his father two years ago. He’s prone to dreams and visions of tragic events, including some that he knows have already happened (such as a train accident) and others that are unfamiliar. Ricky is also less than thrilled when his mother announces that he and his 9-year-old little brother, Danny, will spend five weeks at a summer camp, six hours away from their hometown of South Orange, New Jersey. Danny, a talented baseball player, has no problem making friends, but it’s not as easy for Ricky. Soon, he’s torn between sticking his neck out for a frequently bullied new friend, Miles Romano, and keeping to himself. He finds solace in a voice in his head, which he thinks could be an angel that he saw after nearly drowning at the age of 4. “Have faith,” the voice repeatedly assures him. And faith he’ll surely need as he confronts his fears and suffers a terrible trauma. Ristau’s tale poignantly conveys Ricky’s struggle; the narration, by an older Ricky looking back on his past, retains the persistent and naïve hopefulness of his younger self: “Maybe, just maybe, I could belong to his group.” The scenes of Ricky seeing or hearing his angel, and sometimes his father, are profound but sorrowful. His real-life interactions, too, alternate between effectively upbeat moments and others that are outright depressing, as when Ricky feels that he somehow deserves his misfortunes. Though an early vision boldly validates the protagonist’s dreamlike images (with a future historical event that readers will recognize), the final act is more ambiguous. By the end, Ricky makes a decision that, while offering very little resolution, perfectly sets the stage for a continuing series.

A sad but laudable story of a boy who endures more than he should have to bear.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59298-803-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Beaver's Pond Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2017

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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