An unevenly executed novel but one that brings its smoke-filled milieu to life.

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TWO SHADES OF VICE

BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF AN INTERRACIAL COUPLE’S LIFE TOGETHER IN CRIME

A fictionalized account of the author’s parents’ lives in Kansas City, Missouri, criminal underworld of the 1960s.

After growing up in foster care, author Reynolds (Brush Creek Charlie, 2015, etc.) discovered that his biological parents were career criminals. This startling revelation inspired him to dive into their history, resulting in this unusual book, which aims for James Ellroy–esque true-crime heights but ultimately settles for overheated pulp. According to this account, Reynolds’ parents, Gordon McCoyd “Mack” Reynolds, who was white, and Alla Mae Briggs, who was African-American, met when she was plying her trade as a street prostitute. Combining their talents, they went into business running a “bawdy house” in Kansas City’s red-light district: “I’m a good judge of character,” Mack tells Alla in this text. “My heart, my mind, my soul, my spirit—they tell me that I can trust you.” Kansas City was a key moneymaker for the Chicago Mafia, and Reynolds deftly captures the city’s colorful characters and their smoke-filled haunts: William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano reputedly “had stolen everything, from the wheels of a truck to the rings off a woman’s fingers,” the author writes, and even when “Godfather of the Black Mafia” James “Doc” Dearborn smiled, “it appeared as though he was still very angry about something.” Reynolds says he had access to extensive police records, but rather than take a reportorial approach, he embellishes the narrative with invented, often stilted dialogue: “We’ve been with Mack for quite some time,” one woman says as she’s being tortured. Reynolds portrays his main characters, an interracial couple, as crossing racial lines, but the fact that they encounter brutal racists nearly everywhere they go strains credulity. He gives credit to Mack for showing “compassion for the coloreds,” as Mack puts it, but the character’s fundamental, and extremely unsympathetic, personality trait is to express sadistic fury at almost every turn. There are scenes of violence that would make Quentin Tarantino blanch and also explicit sex scenes, as when a prostitute and her client are transported to “an orgasmic fairyland.”

An unevenly executed novel but one that brings its smoke-filled milieu to life.

Pub Date: April 13, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5450-8887-6

Page Count: 374

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 31, 2018

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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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