A fun, esoteric mystery set in early modern Europe.

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RED SULPHUR

THE GREATEST MYSTERY IN ALCHEMY

Bosnak (Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, 2007, etc.) explores the mysteries of alchemy in the first two volumes of his historical mystery saga.

It is 1666, the Year of the Beast. Mundanus is a 42-year-old Italian alchemist in possession of the fabled Red Sulphur, a substance necessary in the alchemical transmutation of lower metals into gold. He has fled from London in the wake of the Great Fire, landing in enemy Holland to find Helvetius, physician to rulers. Helvetius is a skeptic of alchemy, and Mundanus hopes to convince him of its legitimacy, knowing full well that the physician’s connections may turn his mission into an international incident with consequences for the war between the English and the Dutch. Even more explosive is the triangle that forms among Mundanus and two members of Helvetius’ household: his wife, Marianne Schweitzer-Van Os, and her sickly niece, Clara. The story that follows is one of political intrigue and philosophical debate, a journey that moves across Europe and features some of the greatest personalities of the age, including William of Orange, Benedict de Spinoza, Christiaan Huygens, and Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek. It’s a tale not simply of the cloak-and-dagger world of alchemy, but of the painful and colorful birth of modern science. Bosnak is a skilled writer of the period, summoning it for readers in all its inglorious grime: “I usually am aware of new odors for a week or so, and then the particular stench disappears behind the din. After months away from cities I now inhale a human cesspool of stale sweat and urine mixed in with the excrements of animals. Somehow people stink more than pigs.” He strikes a great balance among history, character, and the esoteric. Alchemy is explored in significant detail, and deliberative discussions between erudite thinkers (with many allusions to the events of the day) occupy large sections of the novel. Even so, Bosnak manages to keep a thriller’s pace and to animate his characters so that they are not overwhelmed by the elaborate setting. The story is incomplete (Book 3 is forthcoming), but the result so far is mysterious and propulsive.

A fun, esoteric mystery set in early modern Europe.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9909321-2-3

Page Count: 468

Publisher: Red Sulphur Publications

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

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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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