A hugely enjoyable, brilliant high-wire act.

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ZUGZWANG

Why would a reclusive chess master be at the heart of a plot to kill the Tsar? That’s just one of the puzzles in this taut, intricate thriller set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the fifth novel from the Northern Irish Bennett (Havoc, in Its Third Year, 2004, etc.).

It’s March 1914, and St. Petersburg is in ferment. Pro-German and pro-French factions jockey for power as war looms; terrorists and revolutionaries are hard at work; Jews are being scapegoated. Yet our narrator, Dr. Otto Spethmann, born a Jew but not raised as one, remains serenely nonpolitical. A middle-aged widower, he lives with his daughter Catherine, a willful university student who he loves dearly. Otto is a respected psychoanalyst with some celebrity patients: Avrom Rozental, a Polish Jew favored to win the upcoming chess tournament; Anna Ziatdinov, a beautiful socialite, daughter of the reactionary industrialist Zinnurov; and Gregory Petrov, Bolshevik leader (Lenin is in exile). Otto is forced to acknowledge political strife by a visit from a police inspector, Lychev, who suspects Otto is linked to a plot to kill the Tsar. The idea is preposterous, but it turns out that Catherine has indeed been consorting with a would-be terrorist, now murdered. Otto’s serenity is further disturbed when armed intruders ransack his office for Rozental’s file. Bennett deftly splices the patients’ case histories with his fast-moving plot. Otto counsels the deeply disturbed Rozental not to play in the tournament, advice which will have explosive repercussions. He pinpoints the source of Anna’s trauma even as they become lovers and he runs afoul of her powerful father. Petrov, however, confident in public but a soul in torment in Otto’s study, remains an enigma. Otto is forced to make difficult moves in this human chess game, even as he plays an actual match with his famous violinist friend Kopelzon (in a treat for chess lovers, there are board-by-board reproductions of each move). A series of stunning surprises ends with Otto himself executing the key conspirator.

A hugely enjoyable, brilliant high-wire act.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-59691-253-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2007

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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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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