A lively but stilted novel of the blossoming jazz scene in the Midwest.

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TO SEARCH THE NIGHT

Swann’s (Paint with Words, 2016) historical novel stars a young Jewish woman discovering the Twin Cities jazz scene in the early 1960s.

Minnesota, 1963. Sarah Rosen is a student at the University of Minnesota, commuting from her parents’ home in St. Louis Park. She’s bored with her life and a little lonely when she meets an interesting-looking painter at a local art show. “I just need to catch some air,” the artist tells her, when she offers him a ride home to Minneapolis. “I could use some good music to cut loose with. Wanna dig some jazz?” The music is like nothing she’s heard before. She later writes in her diary: “He opened a door to another world, a world of people really getting down! Who, I could tell, must live harder and deeper than anyone I know. The music was so hot and sophisticated it makes what I’m used to sound like child’s play.” Soon after, Sarah’s wealthy dad dies suddenly of a heart attack, and her 16-year-old sister, Rachel—who has been fighting nonstop with her parents recently—uses his death as an opening to run away. Things take a dark turn when Rachel makes the mistake of trusting the wrong man in Minneapolis. He sleeps with her and then sells her into a prostitution ring. In order to find her sister, Sarah turns to her new jazz friends: the painter Jim K. Jensen and his friend Gil Montgomery, an alcoholic poet. Interconnected with Sarah and her scene are the stories of numerous other characters, including musicians Joe Citro and Boris Simpson and supper-club dancer “Watusi Lucy.” The streets of the Twin Cities are fraught with many dangers and temptations, but the seekers who flock there are looking for one high in particular: jazz and the freedom the music represents. Swann’s writing, with its period details and slang, manages to capture the culture—and oftentimes the naiveté—of the time and place. The narration, however, is often stiff: “Sarah had never seen live Latin dancing. She was fascinated. The dancing was sexy and hot. So hot! Yet sophisticated too, totally seductive. The dancers were mostly black and they knew the dance as well as a Latino man in a white suit and white shoes.” Other times, the prose is elegant and evocative: “The band was finished setting up. It swung, lifting its listeners in a wave of enthusiastic approval. It kicked like a mule, punched like Cassius Clay. It was a profound, almost terrible realization for Joe, that in the future music less than this would always be found wanting.” Swann presents the music scene from myriad perspectives, and there is a real pleasure in watching his characters interact and pursue their dreams. The ending wraps up a little too neatly, however, and the wooden quality of the language—and the dialogue in particular—keeps the novel from being as immersive as it should be.

A lively but stilted novel of the blossoming jazz scene in the Midwest.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-0-692-03581-8

Page Count: 239

Publisher: Roadrunner Publishing Company

Review Posted Online: Jan. 3, 2019

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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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