This glittering noirish tragedy, with its lushly imagined period landscape and subtle feminist trajectory, is both fun to...

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THE MAGNIFICENT ESME WELLS

The daughter of two beautiful losers—a snakebit Jewish gambler and a chorus girl—comes of age in late 1930s Los Angeles and early 1950s Las Vegas.

A blonde, blue-eyed child of 6, Esme Silver has not yet been enrolled in school, which doesn't mean she’s not getting an education. She spends her days on the MGM lot with her mother and at the track with her father; she’s known to the regulars at both places. One of her rituals is to purchase lunch at the track’s concession stand for her father and herself, four hot dogs for 40 cents; the counter lady often combs out her hair and washes her face. “I can only imagine what compelled her ministrations, what I must have looked like, hair unbrushed, shirt on backwards, my neck strung with a hundred necklaces in imitation of my mother, a silk flower pinned to my wild coiffure.” In one track of this story, 20-year-old Esme recalls the events of 1939 that culminated in her moving with her father to Las Vegas, where he was employed by Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. The second track follows Esme’s own career in Vegas, which takes off when she's noticed at age 15 by Nate Stein, an ambitious and ruthless Jewish gangster. Stein is fictional, but many of the characters are real, including cameos by Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters, and Busby Berkeley. Sharp’s (The True Memoirs of Little K, 2010) research shines in her detailed descriptions of the MGM productions Esme’s mother plays in and the Vegas extravaganzas that feature Esme herself. “The Stardust’s…stage was larger than a basketball court, with an Esther Williams–like swimming tank for summer shows and Sonja Henie–like skating rink for winter ones. The pipes secreted in the catwalks created rain or snow on demand.” If you liked Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, this novel offers a similarly immersive mid-20th-century experience, featuring a heroine as interesting, tough, and tragic as Egan’s Anna Kerrigan, with similar Daddy issues and gangland connections.

This glittering noirish tragedy, with its lushly imagined period landscape and subtle feminist trajectory, is both fun to read and sad to think about.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-268483-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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