A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.

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THE ELECTRIC HOTEL

A long-retired moviemaker recalls the early days of silent films in Smith’s atmospheric follow-up to The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016, etc.).

In 1962, 85-year-old Claude Ballard lives in a run-down Hollywood hotel and spends his days gathering mushrooms and photographing street scenes. He has not made a movie since his “grand cinematic experiment,” The Electric Hotel, appeared in 1910. As his reminiscences to young film scholar Martin Embry unfold, we eventually learn the reasons for his decision, but first we get a wonderfully vivid re-creation of the spell cast by the earliest films, when photographer’s apprentice Claude sees the Lumière brothers’ first reels exhibited in the basement of a Paris hotel in 1895: “every inch of the screen was alive…you burrowed into the screen, dug it out with your gaze.” His work for the Lumières takes him to New York, where the audience’s loud response to a moving picture next door to her theater infuriates touring French actress Sabine Montrose. She winds up in bed with Claude and in the new medium; buccaneering producer Hal Bender finds them a studio perched over the Palisades in New Jersey, where he hopes to elude Thomas Edison’s litigious Motion Picture Patents Company. Smith skillfully blends film history with the adventures of his cast; a Stanislavsky-obsessed acting coach and an Australian stuntman are among the intriguingly idiosyncratic folks who join Sabine, Claude, and Hal, each haunted by damage a parent has inflicted, to joyously invent a new art form. The novel climaxes with a brilliantly detailed account of the filming of The Electric Hotel and its triumphant premiere, followed by multiple blows that have been deftly foreshadowed. The account of Claude’s traumatic experiences filming the devastation of World War I is something of a letdown, but a final scene with Sabine ties up emotional loose ends, and Martin’s screening of the restored Electric Hotel provides a moving finale.

A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-14685-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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