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HOW BEAUTIFUL WE WERE

A fierce, up-to-the-minute novel that makes you sad enough to grieve and angry enough to fight back.

The author of the award-winning debut Behold the Dreamers (2016) follows up with a decades-spanning account of environmental calamity and its reverberating, often violent impact on a fictional African village.

The year 1980 finds Pexton, an American oil giant, in the midst of a yearslong project that by slow degrees is choking the life out of Kosawa, many of whose villagers have already perished “from the poison in the water and the poison in the air and the poisoned food growing from the land that lost its purity the day Pexton came drilling.” Whatever efforts the villagers make to seek relief or repairs have been met with relative indifference by the company and brutal reprisals from their nation’s dictatorship. But in October of that year, a Pexton delegation that had come to Kosawa to placate its desperate citizenry is taken captive by the village madman, Konga, whose reckless gesture is joined by others who believe their dire circumstances leave them no choice but to fight back. So begins a long, valiant, and costly struggle between this tiny farm village and the seemingly overpowering forces both within and outside its country poised to curtail or ignore its grievances. Mbue tells her story from several perspectives and displays deep and detailed empathy toward men and women of various ages, however they may feel about the bloodshed, imprisonment, thwarted hopes, and pervasive fear that dominate the village for the remaining years of the 20th century. At some point, the concerns of these and other villagers coalesce around Thula, an avid and intelligent 10-year-old girl when the Pexton spokesmen are kidnapped, who later goes to America to become educated about the wider world, though she vows to return to Kosawa someday. When she does, she is intent on setting in motion a plan to “bring down” the country’s despotic regime. Meanwhile, the land becomes less habitable, Pexton’s promises of reparations come to little, and Thula’s patience with legal remedies erodes further. Among the many virtues of Mbue’s novel is the way it uses an ecological nightmare to frame a vivid and stirring picture of human beings’ asserting their value to the world, whether the world cares about them or not.

A fierce, up-to-the-minute novel that makes you sad enough to grieve and angry enough to fight back.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-13242-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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