Deftly written, this entertaining novel is both expansive and insightful.

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The Black Butterfly Woman

In his first novel, Clausen tells the gripping story of psychological traumas that lead a soldier to volunteer for the dirtiest work in Vietnam.

To create the fully realized Billy Bascom, Clausen masterfully weaves together two primary narratives, one a gruesome picture of war and the other an equally gruesome picture of a painful childhood. Billy’s job in Vietnam calls for him to dive headfirst into the dark, snake-infested tunnels that the Vietcong use to execute sneak attacks on unsuspecting U.S. soldiers. It takes a touch of insanity to volunteer for such a task, so, as a way of explaining what leads Billy underground, Clausen leaps between passages that describe Billy’s exploration of the enemy tunnels and descriptions of his childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, Billy was scrawny and quiet. He was mercilessly bullied by Nick and his gang as well as by his exhausted single mother. Over the course of Billy’s childhood, Nick nearly suffocates him in a bag, locks him in a refrigerator and eventually begins handing him off to a child molester in exchange for cigarettes and magazines. The series of scarring experiences, most perpetrated by Nick, drove Billy to volunteer for combat and venture to Vietnam to fight off the communists, whom he believes to be the ultimate bullies. This narrative is eventually shattered, however, when Billy meets a Berkeley-educated Vietnamese woman while doing covert work in the tunnels. The woman, whom Billy refers to as the Black Butterfly Woman, provides Billy with an alternative perspective of war. She and Billy fall in love but are torn apart by violence. Billy then returns home and is finally forced to confront the issues that sent him to Vietnam in the first place. In addition to the remarkable depth of character, the novel’s brisk pace makes for an engaging read.

Deftly written, this entertaining novel is both expansive and insightful. 

Pub Date: May 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-1481883191

Page Count: 442

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2013

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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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