Well-done 1920s Kansas City atmosphere, but the romance lacks freshness.

READ REVIEW

SOMEWHERE STILL

In this Jazz Age–set novel, a young, working-class woman falls for the scion of a wealthy hotelier and pays a price.

In 1921 Kansas City, many things are changing. Prohibition, speak-easies, and bootlegging are in force; women newly have the vote; young women are bobbing their hair and shortening their hems, and their job opportunities are expanding beyond the garment factory and shop counter. Some things haven’t advanced, though: public accommodations are segregated by race, women make less money than men and are kept out of certain professions, and different rules exist for rich and poor people. Seventeen-year-old Virginia Mae “Jean” Ball had to drop out of school to look after her mother, who’s dying of tuberculosis (the book prefers the term “consumption,” which was old-fashioned even in the ’20s). Money is a pressing problem, so when the new, fancy Empire Hotel opens, Jean is delighted to land a job there as elevator girl. She soon gets the chance to meet interesting people, such as society ladies who work to improve social conditions. She also meets the dimpled, flirtatious Elden Whitcomb, the son of the man who owns the Empire and “half the town, they say.” Before long, they’re dating, and the couple runs into trouble: Jean gets pregnant, and Elden fails to make certain payoffs to protect the family’s speak-easy. To stay out of jail, Elden must agree to leave Jean and return to Wentworth Military Academy. The rules of society are against her, but Jean—with the help of other women and a final gift from Elden—makes a place in the world for herself and her daughter, Ella. In her debut novel, Ward paints a vivid portrait of Kansas City in the Roaring ’20s, name-checking local landmarks such as Swope Park and Petticoat Lane. Her setting is a good choice, more original than Chicago or New York City. She also does a good job portraying the excitement and energy of that era, whether depicting pleasures such as speak-easies and bathtub gin or new, middle-class opportunities for women, including typing jobs. (She also highlights not-so-good opportunities for working-class women, such as taxi dancing.) Occasionally she strikes a wrong note, such as the aforementioned use of “consumption” and the much-too-modern phrase “Total vertical integration of the supply chain”; also, later on, it’s unclear how a typist suddenly has the skill set to edit a newspaper section. Furthermore, the conventional plot and characters lack the fresh modernity that characterized the 1920s. In the overused tradition of working-class-girl/rich-boy romance, Elden isn’t looking for someone sophisticated or sexy but for someone nice—supposedly a rare quality: “You’re like no other girl, Jean. So sweet and true.” That said, Elden’s ultimate fate does upset some expectations. It’s problematic, however, that the African-American characters exist mainly to cheerfully help the white ones, as when Jean’s doorman’s adult daughter Abby babysits Ella: “I like to watch that child. Feels almost like a favor to me.”

Well-done 1920s Kansas City atmosphere, but the romance lacks freshness.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9993018-1-4

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Welbourne Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

more