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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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


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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