A sharp, engaging, and sometimes-painful portrait of family and nature.

Retirement of the Horse Doctor


Schwerbrock (A Joker and Four Aces, 2014) examines the opposite paths of two brothers in this literary novel.

Brothers Jess and Jim Smith have a difficult life from the beginning. Their father is a deadbeat, and their mother, Caroline, hasn’t fared well since he left, turning to alcohol and feeling forsaken by the world and her small-minded hometown. Growing up poor in a small town makes the boys easy targets, all the more so because Caroline is one of the few nonchurchgoers in the community, and various religious sects define the place’s culture. Still, the boys have each other, and they find solace and much-needed income on their landlord’s farm and in the surrounding woods, laboring, fishing, trapping, and hunting. But over time, the boys grow apart, and their lives take them in radically different directions. Jess sees himself as a realist and strives to be more a part of the town, while Jim concentrates on the power of knowledge, using it to escape the place as their mother never could, even if she doesn’t approve of his choice to become the titular horse doctor. She envisions him as a physician, but he can’t face the trauma of human suffering (“Nobody expects a dog to live to be 80 years old”). Still, life invariably delivers tragedy, and this family knows that more than most. The story is deeply character-driven, but rather than showing the reader a great deal of introspection or interior lives, the players’ actions and histories speak for themselves. In fact, the novel is a little light on the description and atmosphere one might expect from contemporary literary fiction, which may make it harder for some readers to get a firm sense of place and truly inhabit Jess and Jim’s world. On the other hand, the focus on characters’ actions allows the complex narrative to present not just a few defining moments in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, but also a larger swath of events, ultimately painting a much clearer picture with an almost Hemingway-esque quality of prose and structure. The addition of classic literature, Scripture, and hands-on knowledge of hunting, farming, and horse trades brings the novel alive, making it a real treat with an eye toward parts of the American experience that often get short shrift in contemporary fiction.

A sharp, engaging, and sometimes-painful portrait of family and nature.

Pub Date: June 23, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5332-5892-2

Page Count: 348

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2016

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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