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THE BEADS

An entertaining, deeply imagined literary melodrama.

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Oddball New Jersey kids grow up with family values that grow increasingly sinister in McConnell’s labyrinthine coming-of-age novel.

The author centers the story on Darius Van Nest, an eccentric elementary school student at Lawrence Academy in Westerbrook, New Jersey, who’s convinced of his own “illustriousness” and fixated, to the dismay of his English teacher, Jane Brzostovsky, on the incestuous dysfunctions of the infamous Borgia family. Darius’ adoptive parents—his wealthy father Oliver, who’s given to nasty put-downs and Holocaust denial; and his mother Sohaila, a beautiful and shallow Iranian immigrant—are equally off-kilter, especially after Oliver lets Sohaila move her lover into the mansion. Darius’ only friend is classmate Barry Paul, an ordinary 12-year-old kid who’s abused by a manipulative adult, which leaves festering psychological wounds. McConnell follows these characters through the 1980s and ’90s. Darius drifts through Columbia University, Paris, and relationships with several men, including Alan Wilkinson, an aloof student of the philosophy of mathematics; and Rolf, a kindly German aristocrat. Jane is roped into a scheme by Darius’ childhood French tutor, David Caperini, to sell valuable artworks stolen from the Van Nest mansion, and Barry returns home after years out West and reconnects with a wealthy lawyer, Preston Sayles. McConnell’s often darkly comic narrative depicts families as snake-pits of subtle power plays, rich men as unbalanced, and social life as an awkward struggle to paper cheerful good manners over fear, resentment, and boredom. His prose is full of brilliantly evocative character sketches: “Oliver was silent at first. Rude. He flared his nostrils. He sat perfectly still and seemed to count something by means of the nostril-flarings….like a lizard, motionless except for its reptilian dewlap flexing. McConnell’s superb eye for detail reveals layered dramas in a single piercing glance: “One couple was almost lost in shadow in the back. The girl, in tears maybe, bent over her knees. She looked sickened by something her boyfriend had told her. The boy was torturing a matchbook, staring at it with clockmaker’s concentration and an air of contempt.” From a tangle of inappropriate, unpropitious relationships, McConnell unspools sharp-eyed psychological insights.

An entertaining, deeply imagined literary melodrama.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2024

ISBN: 9798988282952

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Itna Press

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2024

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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