Winslow's heroine isn't easy to like. But over time, she reaches into your heart and touches it deeply. So does this book.

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IN WEST MILLS

This tender, exuberant, and impressively crafted debut novel spans decades of family upheaval and painful secrets in telling the story of a freethinking black woman in a tightly knit Carolina community.

Someone as widely read and as fiercely committed to moonshine and serial relationships as Azalea “Knot” Centre would fit snugly within the sophisticated confines of a major metropolis, even in the early 1940s when this saga begins. But Knot lives and teaches school in the rural hamlet of West Mills, North Carolina, and is viewed by the locals as (at best) something of a crank, a solitary eccentric gruffly determined to live life her way. Knot is in her 20s when, the same month Pearl Harbor is attacked, she discovers she's pregnant by a man who’s left town for the military. As determined as she is to go through this ordeal on her own, especially given her estrangement from her family, Knot is nonetheless besieged by the kindness of her neighbors two doors down, the aptly named Otis Lee Loving and his wife, Penelope (or “Pep,” as he calls her), who agree to find a local couple to adopt the child. That’s the kind of man Otis Lee is, somebody who arranges and fixes things for others, especially those he's closest to. And in Knot, Otis Lee finds a person who needs his help whether she admits it or not. They forge a lifelong platonic bond that can’t be shaken even when Otis Lee has to do the same thing all over again when Knot has another baby by yet another man she’s not marrying. Through Winslow’s evocative writing and expansive storytelling, the layers of Otis Lee’s past life, as troubled and heartbreaking as Knot’s, peel away to reveal how hard it has been for him to remain steadfast and strong to those within and outside his immediate family. And in the brave, hard-bitten, but deeply vulnerable Knot, Winslow has created a character as memorable and colorful as any created by Knot's favorite writer, Charles Dickens. Through more than 40 years of ups and downs, Knot and Otis Lee’s story makes you feel the enduring grace and potential redemption to be found in even the unlikeliest of extended families.

Winslow's heroine isn't easy to like. But over time, she reaches into your heart and touches it deeply. So does this book.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-340-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 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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