The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

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FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE

A biting critique of identity that lampoons genetic ties and ethnic stereotypes.

Debut novelist Stephens begins her story in Seoul, South Korea, where best friends and fellow Korean-American adoptees Mindy and Lisa have gone to find their birthparents with the help of the MotherFinders agency. Lisa is ambivalent about her heritage and too reliant on Mindy to fill the void left by an absentee adoptive father. Lisa struggles with the fact that “the adopted child is a lie, her family a fiction,” and one of the only ways she finds solace is by writing; Mindy suggested long ago that Lisa become a writer, but Lisa hasn’t yet found a way to make it her profession. As the book begins, the two friends are having a falling out over Lisa's partying, and Mindy kicks Lisa out of their hotel room. Lisa continues hanging out with Harrison, the MotherFinders’ uber-handsome fixer, who tricks her into traveling with him. The story takes a strange turn. Lisa is kidnapped and wakes up a prisoner in an extravagant compound, “the captive of a lunatic." She meets a cast of unusual international characters, several of whom look to be plastic surgery test cases; her captor forces her to change her appearance and records her every move. Stephens intersperses each chapter with quotes from famous adoptees, and Lisa’s fixation on the physical characteristics of race and identity twist the idea of ancestry like a fun-house mirror. “Was I, all along, someone else?” Lisa wonders, as she finally meets her mother, the surgically altered and cartoonish Honey LeBaron. Lisa learns that the heavily-surveilled compound is in North Korea, but the bigger surprise is her mother’s revelation about Lisa’s family line. Lisa re-evaluates everything she thought she knew about herself as she tries to unravel “the enigma of Honey, the anti-mother who had reached across the years and the continents to drag me back to her stone-hearted bosom,” and she plots her escape from her mother's lavish, bizarre prison. “I didn’t love her,” she says, ultimately confronting the darkness in herself, “but I recognized her, as familiar to me as my own self.”

The increasing tension and outlandishness of Stephens’ work lends itself to a poignant take on the topic of family.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944700-74-4

Page Count: 330

Publisher: Unnamed Press

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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