An intriguing, paranoia-laced futuristic thriller with crisply described action; heavily plotted yet maddeningly vague on...

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THE PREFERRED OBSERVER

An authoritarian Science Bureau dominates future surveillance-state America, where rebels and criminals suspect that the dire threat of an extraterrestrial plague may be a high-level hoax.

This sci-fi novel’s events occur largely in New York City in the post-World War III era (no details are given about the conflict), although there are initial forays into deep space. Orphan Maggie Powers desperately joins a “grave-robbing” expedition of paid miscreants to an orbital mausoleum and is the sole survivor when the spaceship explodes. Miraculously rescued—along with a vial of unknown stuff purloined from a corpse—she subsists in a space-station bar serving miners of the asteroid Ceres. There she meets Anthony Mayes, a kindred outcast with his own secret. In testing revolutionary ship technology, Mayes—eventually betrayed and presumed dead back home—proved Einsteinian physics wrong. Back in New York, the Science Bureau upholds the status quo. Thomas Pauling was a top-level director whose tenure ended when he dangerously questioned Science Bureau dogma. Now disgraced and pacified with pharmaceuticals, he holds a minor visitor-guide position. With routine police brutality and summary executions, freelance “avengers” commit reprisals against officers with blood on their hands. Richard Hilinski, aka Frank (a tribute to Marvel Comics’ Punisher), is one especially resourceful mercenary, and his mission intersects with Maggie, Mayes, Pauling, and others caught up in the same web of deceit. Overshadowing everything is the dread of “The Rouge,” supposedly flulike alien microbes contracted by Mars colonists. An incurable, deadly threat after accidentally being introduced to Earth, The Rouge has been a societal game-changer, limiting space travel, creating quarantine zones, and clamping down the heavy hand of government, law enforcement, and the Science Bureau. But what if The Rouge is an exaggeration—a powerful tool of the elites? As with much of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid sci-fi tales, the lengthy narrative seems to offer a vast conspiracy with no cohesive structure—even its minions are ignorant of its goals. Alexander (Withur We, 2010) comes from a background of Libertarian-leaning sci-fi writing and commentary. He sends a cast of interlinked protagonists with more subplots and shifting loyalties than an Alexandre Dumas serial scrambling through the Manhattan sprawl (an unedifying Orwellian dystopia of high-rises and flophouses, with no particular flavor). They careen off one another in fairly suspenseful stuff—with incidents sometimes doubling back and rerunning from varying points of view. While characterizations lean on the thin side, the author resists making them mouthpieces for soapboxing extensively on abuses of authority by political and scientific interests, preferring to show readers rather than lecture them. The participant most baldly advancing the themes is actually a robot called Sara, a revolutionary police android created without preconceptions or programmed bias. Instead of being an obedient enforcer, impartial Sara logically rejects The Rouge—deeming it a sham—along with the moral superiority of the bully cops themselves. She determines herself to be an individual and more or less formulates the Golden Rule. The ending offers a reasonable explanation of events, but not even key characters quite believe it.

An intriguing, paranoia-laced futuristic thriller with crisply described action; heavily plotted yet maddeningly vague on the fine details.

Pub Date: May 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5333-4554-7

Page Count: 574

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2019

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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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