A slight sophomore slump after a pitch-perfect debut, but commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding.

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SONGS WITHOUT WORDS

Expanding her canvas from The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2001, etc.), Packer explores a friendship and a family wounded by a teenager’s attempted suicide.

While she confined herself to the first-person narrator’s point of view in her bestselling first novel, here the author persuasively enters the heads of five different people in northern California: Liz and Sarabeth, best friends since the suicide of Sarabeth’s mother 30 years ago; Liz’s husband, Brody, a business-development executive; their severely depressed 15-year-old, Lauren; and her carefully well-adjusted younger brother, Joe. Sarabeth is unmarried, a designer who gussies up for-sale houses and apartments with custom-made lampshades or pillows. She’s the “creative” one, Liz the contented housewife who doesn’t mind hand-holding her turbulent friend. But when Lauren slashes her wrists and Sarabeth doesn’t call for days after finding out, Liz feels betrayed. Things are also rocky with Brody when Lauren comes home from the hospital; the different approaches the spouses take with their still-raw daughter drive them apart. At first, it’s hard to sympathize with Packer’s privileged, self-absorbed characters. Lauren seems to be wallowing in her distress; Sarabeth and Liz nurse their grievances instead of talking honestly about them; Brody flings himself into e-mail and business trips; Joe vanishes to soccer games and sleepovers. There isn’t a lot of action to grab readers’ attention. Slowly and carefully, Packer shows her characters putting their lives back together after a traumatizing blow. Lauren slowly regains her self-esteem and sense of humor; Brody and Liz reaffirm a deep, satisfying marital love; Sarabeth battles depression and makes new friends, understanding that she can’t always lean on Liz. The two old friends’ moving reconciliation closes a quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true.

A slight sophomore slump after a pitch-perfect debut, but commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-375-41281-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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