A very impressive, engagingly written first novel.

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MAD MISCHIEF

A debut novel featuring a heroine with bipolar disorder, her tortured relationships, and the beautiful flora and fauna of Kenya.

Sarah and Peter, a wealthy, retired couple from California, have decided to treat themselves to a safari in Africa. At the last minute, however, they ditch an old-line travel company to instead go with the charismatic safari guide Max Einfield. However, during the safari, he’s nabbed for having expired papers and is detained at the notorious Nyayo House in Nairobi, controlled by imposing Kenyan functionaries. Most chapters begin with Sarah’s efforts to free Max and then flash back to the safari itself, which would have been idyllic except for the fact that Max took an inexplicable dislike to Sarah and that Peter was constantly needy, demanding, and irascible. Readers may find themselves fervently wishing that Sarah would strike back against both of them somehow, but she’s struggling with her own emotional problems, including a past suicide attempt, which allows the two men to bully her with impunity. The safari sights, however, prove to be spectacular, and Max does indeed know everything there is to know about animal behaviors. (He’s also a very charming man—except when he’s not.) The trio soon run across Brandon Howard, a world-famous nature photographer. He and Sarah hit it off immediately; clearly, they are soul mates. He pops up again and again during their travels, which is good for Sarah’s soul. Later, she stays on in Kenya by herself—a stay that stretches into weeks, with Sarah feeling increasingly happy and excited as the days go by. Finally, she’s convinced to return to California, where her trusted doctor diagnoses her with bipolar disorder. There’s much to admire in St. John’s debut novel. She has real insight into her characters as well as a wicked talent for turning a phrase: “She found herself trying to please a woman who appeared to bite off satisfaction from her children in tiny morsels, then, finding them unpalatable, spat them out”; “Her pen moves ahead, becoming a small sailing vessel carried along a course determined not by the captain, but by the wind.” At one point, she describes antelope on a road as “bucking at one another like notes of a song rising and then colliding.” More experienced writers would love to have such a gift. And her character sketches of Max and Peter are spot-on: Every little bullying comment from Max and every childish demand from Peter speak volumes about them as people. Sarah’s sadness is poignant and palpable, particularly when she realizes that all the money that she spread around so lavishly in her manic state—to Max, to Brandon, to assorted others—is truly gone for good. Readers may have one cavil, however; it’s not easy to exit a plot and end a book, and what the author does, in this case, may delight some but leave others incredulous. On balance, though, St. John is a promising writer to be encouraged.

A very impressive, engagingly written first novel.

Pub Date: May 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63505-264-0

Page Count: 456

Publisher: MCP Books

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2018

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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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