An engrossing, painful, and disturbing tale of education against the odds.

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REDEFINING NORMAL

In this novel based on a true story, a boy with cerebral palsy struggles to find his place in a dysfunctional school system.

After he is born, Alan Jones suffers a severe stroke. Even if he survives, the doctors tell his mother, he will be in a vegetative state without the ability to interact with others. But she doubts the physicians’ predictions. When Alan is 2 years old, his mother has him evaluated by Dr. Shasta, who is delighted to discover his intellectual capabilities. Alan’s mother asks the physician if the boy possesses average intelligence. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that,” asserts Shasta. “I would say that he’s smarter than an average kid.” At first, Alan attends a school for special needs students. He repeatedly experiences abuse—first on the bus, when a mentally disabled student bites him, then at school, when an angry aide ruthlessly spanks him. Still, Alan thrives in the academic environment. By middle school, he needs new challenges. When Ms. Hawthorne, a school psychiatrist, evaluates him, she finds that the system has failed to give Alan the education he deserves. It’s determined that Alan should attend “regular school,” at least for part of the day. As Alan gets older, he becomes more and more independent, trying his best to fend and advocate for himself. When he enters high school, he’s the only special needs pupil among 3,000 students. While Alan’s proud of his accomplishments, he’s also lonely, “a clique of one.” He grapples with the pressures of being a standard bearer for the special needs community, and he desires what any high schooler wants: friends, a sense of belonging. He’s just like any other kid except that he faces an undue portion of difficulties.

Nankivell’s novel is a scathing rebuke of America’s education system, which has not only failed to provide appropriate educational opportunities for differently abled students, but also has exposed those pupils to ruthless and inhumane practices. The book shines when it examines what it’s like for Alan to go about his day, depending on others to help him with every bodily function. Through Alan’s eyes, the tale looks at the educators and aides who work with this population both critically and pityingly. The story explores how hard the duties are and how poorly the system compensates these employees, but it doesn’t allow such factors to excuse the cruelty it observes. In one particularly well-constructed passage, the author takes readers through Alan’s morning routine, from waking up early and being fed breakfast by his mother to getting strapped into his leg braces, put in his wheelchair, loaded onto the bus, and driven to school. Alan is at the mercy of others. Though he is kind and smart, the tale shows him at certain low points, when he can be vindictive and harsh. He’s not an angel—he’s a human being. But at times, the work strains to overcome a formulaic approach to telling the story of surmounting adversity. Again and again, Alan is embarrassed or made fun of, then gets his revenge when he proves his classmates—and sometimes his teachers—wrong. The writing is at its best when it hews closely to Alan’s physical reality; when it tries to generalize or draw larger lessons, the prose suffers.

An engrossing, painful, and disturbing tale of education against the odds.

Pub Date: May 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4835-9688-4

Page Count: 280

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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THE GLASS HOTEL

A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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When a book has such great comic timing, it's easy to finish the story in one sitting.

THE HONEY-DON'T LIST

A toxic workplace nurtures an intoxicating romance in Lauren’s (The Unhoneymooners, 2019, etc.) latest.

Rusty and Melissa Tripp are the married co-hosts of a successful home-makeover show and have even published a book on marriage. After catching Rusty cheating on Melissa, their assistants, James McCann and Carey Duncan, are forced to give up long-scheduled vacations to go along on their employers' book tour to make sure their marriage doesn’t implode. And the awkwardness is just getting started. Stuck in close quarters with no one to complain to but each other, James and Carey find that the life they dreamed of having might be found at work after all. James learns that Carey has worked for the Tripps since they owned a humble home décor shop in Jackson, Wyoming. Now that the couple is successful, Carey has no time for herself, and she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her creative contribution to their media empire. Carey also has regular doctor’s appointments for dystonia, a movement disorder, which motivates her to keep her job but doesn’t stop her from doing it well. James was hired to work on engineering and design for the show, but Rusty treats him like his personal assistant. He’d quit, too, but it’s the only job he can get since his former employer was shut down in a scandal. Using a framing device similar to that of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, the story flashes forward to interview transcripts with the police that hint at a dramatic ending to come, and the chapters often end with gossip in the form of online comments, adding intrigue. Bonding over bad bosses allows James and Carey to stick up for each other while supplying readers with all the drama and wit of the enemies-to-lovers trope.

When a book has such great comic timing, it's easy to finish the story in one sitting.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3864-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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