If this was an episode severed, so to speak, from the body of A Dark Matter, it’s easy to understand why. This is very, very...

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A SPECIAL PLACE

THE HEART OF A DARK MATTER

This extremely creepy and disturbing novella is either a pendant to, or, more likely, an outtake from Straub’s most recent full-length novel A Dark Matter, published earlier this year.

This story focuses on that book’s ill-fated secondary character Keith Hayward during his adolescent years in Milwaukee. Keith’s disturbing misbehavior, spurred by his non-affectionate obsession with his neighbor’s pets, stirs his mother Maggie to hope her only child will benefit from the steadying influence of his frequently visiting Uncle Tillman. But, as we know from the opening pages, “Uncle Till” is a charismatic drifter whose unexplained nightly excursions have attracted the attention of local police. Nevertheless, Keith cherishes Till’s counsel that a boy soon to be a man needs “a special place” to store his secrets—and the boy’s “experiments” with animals take over his life. Straub sticks closely to Keith’s roiling thoughts, as he enters high school, where severe acne and an aura of menacing stoicism discourage would-be bullies. No such luck for his forlorn classmate Tomek Miller, whose gratitude for Keith’s “protection” knows no bounds. Soon Keith masters homosexual sadism (graphically, gratuitously described), forcing the weaker “Miller” to aid the researches he conducts in his secret room (the special place Uncle Till had urged Keith to create). Meanwhile, news reports about the reappearance of a serial murderer (“the Ladykiller”) enable Keith to recognize “the meshing of two separate calendars, his uncle’s and the murderer’s.” Keith confides his suspicions to Uncle Till, draws Miller deeper into his web, and, at Christmas, presents his mentor with the ultimate gift. The book is unquestionably an efficient nausea-inducer, but it contains many more shocks than surprises and is propelled by sexual imagery so pronounced that it usurps and dissipates the story’s horror content.

If this was an episode severed, so to speak, from the body of A Dark Matter, it’s easy to understand why. This is very, very close to Straub at his very, very worst.

Pub Date: July 21, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-60598-102-4

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Borderland/Ivan Dee

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2010

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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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