A tart but ultimately hollow portrait of a narcissist parading toward hubris.

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HOMO CONSCIUS

A retired British diplomat uses his newly acquired free time to explore the mysteries of his own mind.

There’s an air of absurdity that buoys but can’t save this bizarre debut novel by Balding, longtime chief executive officer of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. We meet our protagonist, Victor Andrews, as he prepares to undergo an angioplasty at the age of 50. Perhaps it’s the shadow of his own mortality at play, but subsequently, this very British creature of habit begins to ponder all manner of things—the psyche of mass murderers is a recurring motif, as are sex, atheism, and the nature of reality. It’s probably best that Victor is given to long soliloquies, as his only real companions are his lady friend, Helen, a psychoanalyst, and a newly acquired parrot, Yorick. Among Victor’s myriad theories is the idea that should humans achieve total objectivity, they might expand their consciousness to the point they mutate into a new species, hence the title. It is fitfully funny at times—for all his loquacious speeches, our man is an utter horndog who spends more time pondering his manhood than his humanity. “You penetrate me like a solemn god entering his temple” could easily qualify for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Victor also spends half the book trying to teach Yorick to say things like “God is dead,” to the point the whole enterprise feels like an overly cerebral but interminable Monty Python skit. Close followers of philosophy may find some value in all this cerebral navel-gazing as Victor prattles on, name-checking Pascal, Kafka, and Nietzsche, among others. Most readers may feel more like Helen does when she asks, “What’s actually the matter with you? It’s as though your head had cracked open and you were picking out pieces of your brain and examining them for sense.”

A tart but ultimately hollow portrait of a narcissist parading toward hubris.

Pub Date: April 25, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-935830-46-7

Page Count: 274

Publisher: Upper West Side Philosophers

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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