Though ambitious in its goals, the book stumbles, causing Willie and his family to suffer more than they already have.

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THE MERCY SEAT

The imminent execution of a black man shows the level of injustice a town’s white residents are willing to endure in this historical novel inspired by real events.

Eighteen-year-old Willie Jones sits in a Louisiana jail cell in 1943 awaiting his final punishment, death, for raping a white woman, though the reader learns that the two were involved in a romantic relationship and Willie was arrested after her father discovered them together. The story unfolds as the electric chair makes its way to New Iberia, where Willie and those who wish to see him dead await. Winthrop (The Why of Things, 2013, etc.) deploys the perspectives of several characters—some more directly involved in Willie’s fate than others—creating a narrative that causes readers to confront the difference between what is legal and what is just. Power and agency are the sole province of white men, and heavy is the burden—for at least one character. Polly Livingstone, the lawyer who prosecuted Willie but is unsure of his guilt, spends much time agonizing over his role in the process. And Winthrop provides nice nuance by showing that Polly’s decision to follow Southern custom by ensuring that a black man suspected of being involved with a white woman is put to death was more complicated than readers might have assumed. Meanwhile, those who care the most about Willie are those who can do the least for him, including Polly’s wife, Nell; the town priest, Father Hannigan; and most notably Ora, the wife of the local gas station operator, whose motives are not entirely clear. Winthrop writes most tenderly of Willie’s father, Frank, who is trying to ensure that his son has a proper headstone, a task he’s understandably avoided. Unfortunately, Frank’s role, and those of the other black characters, is marginal, as the book is more dedicated to exposing how the whites who are sympathetic to what Willie represents inevitably fail him. Winthrop does so by invoking those all-too-familiar tropes of Southern literature—the ridiculously hot day; the white bystanders in front of the courthouse; and the Northerner who cannot jibe with those curious Southerners and their ways.

Though ambitious in its goals, the book stumbles, causing Willie and his family to suffer more than they already have.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2818-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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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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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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