Engrossing, imperfect characters in a riveting intergalactic tale.

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THE CURIOUS CONSPIRACY ON GAMMA CETI

In this sci-fi debut, two teenagers suspect something diabolical lies behind the mysteriously locked supply closet in their school’s subbasement.

Dex Carpenter knows he has a low social standing at Saint McIntyre’s Academy on the colonized planet Gamma Ceti. This is primarily due to Travis Bannon, the much-respected star athlete who’s bullied him for years. So Dex doesn’t have the confidence to strike up a conversation with beguiling Tabitha Tempest, who transferred from an Earth school not long ago. His first one-on-one encounter with Tabitha is happenstance: Dex gets sick and is late to Morning Mass, which he then decides to skip altogether. It turns out Tabitha has been missing Mass every day, and she convinces Dex to make it a daily routine as well. The two bond and soon develop romantic feelings. But Tabitha believes the academy has secrets, starting with the principal having off-world tech, which the colony’s Pleiades Catholic society expressly forbids. She further claims that students return from Mass in some kind of trance lasting a couple of hours. Dex notices this, too, and Tabitha suggests Saint McIntyre’s is up to something sinister, like brainwashing. Assuming that the Masses have compromised students for years (and that adult colonists are brainwashed former pupils), Tabitha and Dex need hard evidence to take to Federal agents at the colonial outpost. They set their sights on the academy’s subbasement supply closet, which has a crypto-circuit lock that the principal’s special key likely opens. What the two find inside that room is much worse—and more dangerous—than they anticipated. West’s multigenre novel successfully blends sci-fi, mystery, and teen drama. For example, the tech, though minimal, is apparent. Tabitha’s Earth device, a Digit, “can do pretty much anything,” such as scanning for other tech in the school. The mystery, meanwhile, is sound: Tabitha and Dex’s eventual discovery in the subbasement leads to more questions than answers, which only deepens the conspiracy. But the author’s most laudable achievement is the deconstruction of teen-drama clichés, most notably involving the characters. The socially awkward protagonist, for one, earns sympathy as a bully’s victim. But Tabitha’s lament of drawing unwanted attention based solely on her looks is critical of most boys, including Dex, who initially pines for her for the same reason. And in a short but effective scene, Travis’ father, Nick, physically assaults his son, signaling lifelong abuse that is ostensibly the genesis of the student’s bullying. West’s simplified narrative concentrates on Tabitha and Dex, with much of the story set at Saint McIntyre’s and few appearances from adults. This makes the expedited romance convincing. There’s plenty of shared time for Tabitha to admire Dex’s confidence and later have her doubts when that assurance seemingly dissipates. The prose is often playful, as in this sci-fi-inspired interaction: “Soon a potent charge rose between them, like the rumble of booster engines priming for blast-off.” Unquestionable peril, unveiled villains, and a chase sequence constitute the final act, and though the book has a definite and memorable ending, there’s series potential here.

Engrossing, imperfect characters in a riveting intergalactic tale.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9892839-6-0

Page Count: 238

Publisher: Kenneth E. Floro III

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 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 strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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