A uniquely American tale of the lasting impact of war, the power of friendship, and a fraught bond between father and son.

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FIRST GENERATION

In La Piana’s novel, the son of Italian immigrants struggles to understand his remote father while growing up in Los Angeles.

John Russo is an enigma to his only child, the narrator of La Piana’s first novel. Every day, Russo goes to a factory where he “loads endless cases of paint into living-room-sized trailers that are then pulled away by big diesels.” After work, he heads home, eats a meal with his in-laws, wife and son, and then collapses in front of the television before going to bed. Russo doesn’t beat his son—though many fathers do in Pico Rivera, east of East LA—but he also doesn’t engage with him at all. As the narrator finds his place in the neighborhood, he learns that his olive skin and immigrant family qualify him as “brown” rather than a “paddy.” He also tries to make sense of his father’s withdrawal from the world. In one instance—when Russo intervenes in a neighbor’s drunken attack on his wife—the narrator sees a spark of the man his father once was, but that light quickly fades. As a teenager, the narrator frequently brushes against criminality and death, losing one of his childhood friends in a shooting and himself almost dying from a stabbing. Miraculously, he survives high school and is accepted into college; he also learns about his father’s World War II experience in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, “one of the worst defeats of American arms in any war.” Although the narrator doesn’t make this discovery until college, La Piana’s novel alternates between the narrator’s coming of age and Russo’s harrowing battle to stay alive in North Africa. La Piana writes insightfully about the tense interplay of race, ethnicity and class in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, when describing the neighborhood’s reaction to a gay couple, the narrator observes: “In poor neighborhoods people tend to use impolite terms for groups of people, like queer, paddy, or nigger, but they also tend to treat individual people from those groups like they treat everybody else. Middle class folks, on the other hand, know better than to call people names, but they also tend, inadvertently of course, to avoid people who are different from themselves.” La Piana’s characters are similarly nuanced for the most part, although his choice to highlight Russo’s accent using nonstandard spellings such as “dey” and “dem” can distract from the damage caused by his experiences in the war.

A uniquely American tale of the lasting impact of war, the power of friendship, and a fraught bond between father and son.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2013

ISBN: 978-1492965329

Page Count: 246

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2014

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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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