Occasional narrative stumbles are more than made up for with deft characterizations.

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TERROR FOR LONDON

THEY HAD A PLAN TO TERRIFY LONDON, BUT IT FAILED

In Carroll’s (Dooley’s Dollars, 2010, etc.) political thriller, the Irish Republican Army organizes an attack on the London Underground, sending in five disposable people.

In 1986 Northern Ireland, Carlos approaches members of the IRA with a plan: In exchange for two million dollars, he’ll formulate a scheme to stop the London Underground trains, effectively shutting down the British capitol. The price is steep, but the IRA hopes the resultant chaos will bolster Northern Ireland’s claim for independence. Pat, Gerry, Sean, Roddy and Peter, each deemed expendable, are chosen to enact the scheme; all they have to do is follow simple instructions and stay clear of authorities. The novel gets off to a bumpy start with (female) Pat on the thieving end of a daring armored-van heist; the scene may strike readers as out of place, since Pat is anything but the novel’s protagonist. Subsequent chapters center on numerous characters, introducing the other four terrorists individually as they are selected for the mission. The travels of mastermind Carlos as well as IRA agents Roger and Krells prove overly detailed, further adding to the book’s sluggish start. But once the plan is set in motion, the novel hits its narrative stride. Suddenly, even the seemingly mundane act of Carlos purchasing gardening tools will pique readers’ curiosity because its eventual purpose is certain. The book focuses more on descriptions of preparations than the actual terrorist act, affording ample time for characters’ personalities to develop. All the would-be terrorists, excluding Gerry, pass the weeks together awaiting instructions—Pat with Paul, the tour guide; Roddy with Francie, the young nanny—each manifesting different outcomes. There are also frequent reminders of the looming plan: Peter times the distance between the Underground and his hotel; Pat constantly worries about a double-cross; Gerry researches the Underground, determined to learn what he’ll be asked to do. Quite a bit of slang is utilized but it’s subtly defined; the meaning of a curvy barmaid’s “Charlies” is easy to discern. The ending may seem anticlimactic to some readers, but perhaps that’s the point of the novel—the ends depend on what may or may not go wrong with the means.

Occasional narrative stumbles are more than made up for with deft characterizations. 

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2010

ISBN: 978-0910390163

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Coda

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2012

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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