An unnerving but highly readable historical novel about a troubled teen.

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THE MAN DANCE

Rollins’ (Good-Time Girl, 2019) historical novel tells the story of a troubled, talented English boy’s coming-of-age in the 1960s.

As a small child, George Carveth grows up on the Cornish coast surrounded by family, although some of his relatives disapprove of the ballet class that he attends: “Strange he was the only male child there. Some of the boys in the neighborhood didn’t want George playing football anymore, which was batty….The adults decided this ‘Frenchy dancing’ had gone far enough.” When his father gets an offer of a new job in London, his parents move to the city while 10-year-old George is sent to a posh boarding school. There, the other students make fun of his accent, and a bigoted member of the faculty takes exception to George’s partial Indian ancestry. He’s seemingly befriended by one of his schoolmasters, Mr. Wilburn, but the man quickly reveals his true intentions by asking George to dance naked for him. The teacher’s sexual abuse of the boy coincides with a split in George’s personality: the cautious, everyday George and the secretive “Shadow George,” which he sees as his “bad self." As Shadow George increasingly makes decisions for him, the 14-year-old dances on a lark before his classmates while "lightly clad," and makes aggressive advances toward younger students. One of his uncles, who recognizes George’s talent for singing, dancing, and impressions, encourages his parents to contact a talent scout, so George meets a pair of Americans named Jack and Jill Stuart. With their encouragement—particularly that of Jill, to whom the teenager takes a special fancy—George begins to hone his craft and embark on a career in entertainment. The 15-year-old continues to struggle with his confused sexual feelings as he pines for Jill and as Jack makes sexual overtures. As the boy reaches his later teens and success in the arts appears within reach, Shadow George threatens to cause more trouble. Over the course of this novel, Rollins’ prose is nimble and ornately textured, evoking the landscapes of Cornwall and London with painterly skill. Her characters are drawn even more finely, as each is revealed to be a knotted web of conflicting instincts and beliefs. Her treatment of sexuality—and the predatory advances of adults and older children—is particularly sharp. At one point, George reveals Wilburn’s actions to his older cousin Timmy, who says that he regularly exposes himself to a Norwegian sailor in exchange for a penny. The cousin remarks that there are “Odd ducks in the world…I’ve met a few. No one ever tells you.” Apart from these moments, however, the book has a very traditional feel; indeed, Rollins lays out her story at a leisurely pace that sometimes drags, and the plot’s shape is somewhat easy to predict. Still, Rollins has assembled an array of broken people who are compelling, even as they destroy one another, and she manages to capture a horrific side of humanity.

An unnerving but highly readable historical novel about a troubled teen.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-79572-477-7

Page Count: 394

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: July 25, 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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