Lyrical, raw, and moving.

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SONORA

A coming-of-age story set largely in the surreal desert-world of Phoenix.

In this atmospheric debut, protagonist Ahlam’s identity crisis is clear from the start—she’s the daughter of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian refugee; a high school misfit; a dreamer of strangely prophetic fever dreams. So when she meets Laura, a musician and rebel who seems to exist outside their school’s social structure, it isn’t surprising that the two find solace in each other. Ahlam and Laura fall into a close friendship, confiding in one another about their broken home lives; discovering drugs and sex; and meeting the enigmatic Dylan, an older artist from New York City. Meanwhile, strange things are happening in the desert: mysterious blue lights occasionally appear across the nighttime sky, spotted by some, including Ahlam’s father, and an unexplained series of deaths and suicides spreads through the high school. Fearing they might be next and haunted by the desert’s (and their own) secrets, Ahlam and Laura follow Dylan to New York to pursue their dreams—Ahlam to become a dancer, Laura to make music—but, drunk on the city’s intensity and Dylan’s drug-fueled lifestyle, their lives quickly begin to spin out of control. Though its New York portions can sometimes seem unfocused, the novel provides a lyrical meditation on the confusion and awe of growing up that is made beautifully strange by the desert’s haunting presence. Ahlam’s feelings of isolation and inability to fit in—particularly when she’s with the magnetic, confident, but flawed Laura—are also rendered in a way that’s both typical and painfully, relatably fresh. But Assadi shines most in developing the intense, almost destructive bond between the two girls that forms the emotional nucleus of the book. Muses Ahlam, “I…felt her in the way that I moved, how over the years I came to light my cigarettes just like her, between ring and middle fingers, how I laughed or how my cash was always stuffed and disorganized in my wallet, just like hers…I had brought her into my skin. I dreamed sometimes that in the mirror was her face reflected back at me. Still, I don’t know where she ended and I began.”

Lyrical, raw, and moving.

Pub Date: March 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61695-792-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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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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