A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.

TRADING DREAMS AT MIDNIGHT

McKinney-Whetstone returns to familiar territory—the African-American community of West Philadelphia—in her latest novel (Blues Dancing, 1999, etc.).

This time out, a grandmother and granddaughter try to come to terms with the complicated woman who ties them together. Troubled Neena, who left home at 20 in search of her mentally ill mother, Freeda, returns to Philadelphia over a decade later desperate for help. She has been working as a blackmailer, having learned at a young age to use her charm and looks to her advantage, but things have gone awry. Neena hopes to seek refuge with her high-achieving sister, Tish, but soon learns that she is in the hospital due to a difficult pregnancy, clinging to her life. Standing between the two sisters is Nan, Neena’s estranged grandmother, who raised the girls after Freeda abandoned them when they were teenagers. Nan, a God-fearing dressmaker, has had her share of hardship—she spent much of her life caring for her alcoholic husband, Alfred, and clearly blames herself for both Freeda’s and Neena’s problems. When Neena returns, she and Nan have not spoken in many years, and Nan worries that Neena’s presence will upset Tish and harm her or the baby. With the links to her family severed, Neena flirts with the temptations of her old career when she is set up professionally with Cliff, a married aspiring politician. But as fragile Neena, in some of the novel’s most captivating passages, navigates memories of her difficult childhood, she also starts to realize that Cliff might be different, and that unlike Freeda, her life might actually still turn around. A final reunion scene that seems all too quick and easy, given the pages of struggle, also shows Neena how family, especially Nan, can still be a part of this new life.

A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-688-16386-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2008

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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