A rich, artistic novel reveals a culture obscured and unknown.

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THE SNUFF BOTTLE BOY

A coming-of-age story set in North Korea’s fringe Chinese community uncovers a shocking world of art and tradition suppressed underneath the country’s disciplined veneer.

To the outside world, North Korea is a gray, choreographed nation, but even under such an oppressive regime, a surprising Chinese community exists within its borders. Mickey and his family are a part of this community, and while not an identity of privilege, it does afford advantages. Though frowned upon, sometimes even punished, there is tolerance for many to work as smugglers, bringing in outside luxuries while selling off pieces of the country’s history or, at the very least, convincing fakes. Mickey toils under a harsh mentor who trains him as an artist and a forger, but his passions lean harder toward the latter. Further igniting his imagination is a painted, antique copper snuff bottle, a family heirloom that has become a talisman to him. Its counterpart was spirited away by his grandmother Lily, who left North Korea for Moscow. The alluring mystery of Lily and the other bottle moves him to seek out greater freedoms as he studies art abroad. He also helps his brother Piggy in smuggling and faces the dangers of fools, assassins, and idealists. Kim’s debut reads as much like poetry as it does prose, Mickey’s travels and ebbing naiveté recalling the novels of Kerouac—though with far less whimsy and far greater consequence. Colorful digressions into his family’s history permeate but never distract from Mickey’s travels. Characters and their experiences, even outside of the protagonist’s plotline, matter. A foolish Western woman extolling the “hardiness” of North Korean socialism isn’t presented as just caricature, and a cruel rival from Mickey’s youth grows, unseen but believably, into a co-conspirator if not a friend. Most notably Mickey’s first love, Minsu, appears sporadically but offers a luckless story that could (and should!) be a novel unto itself, her hardships reminding readers that even Mickey’s journey is not as difficult as others’.

A rich, artistic novel reveals a culture obscured and unknown.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-909979-76-5

Page Count: 314

Publisher: Crux Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 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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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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