While a few topics can be dull, this tale adroitly portrays one woman’s complex journey.

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TO CAROLINE—LOVE, AUNTIE

A debut novel focuses on a scientist and engineer’s look back on her own life.

When readers first meet Lauren Giulio, she is on a flight to Rome. Lauren is an American whose father was born in the small town of Panni, Italy. She knows little about his past, and due to the demands of her work, she has never had the time to do much investigating. She embarks on her current quest in order to “unravel the mystery around her father’s childhood” and perhaps learn more about herself. Upon arrival in Rome, Lauren hails a cab to Panni, though things feel amiss. The cab driver is strikingly like her father. The two men even have the same name. Of course, the driver cannot be Lauren’s father because he is dead. The coincidences are brushed aside so that the visiting American can connect with her cousin Gabriella. Lauren will tell Gabriella everything about her life over the past few decades. Lauren explains her struggles in college, how she eventually embarked on a career as a scientist and engineer, and how she learned that “in the business world, nothing remains static.” Amid all the details about professional ladder climbing, there are personal, often painful anecdotes. Lauren tells of her mother’s death. She explains how, just a few years after that heartbreak, she lost her husband, Peter. All in all, she has much to reveal and Gabriella has plenty of time to listen. (In an author’s note, Graf explains the novel’s title: “I can’t forget my niece Lauren and her daughter Caroline, for whom Auntie wrote this book.”) Although the protagonist certainly has a lot to say in the intriguing tale, events move quickly. At well under 300 pages, the work avoids unnecessary languishing. The death of Peter is, for instance, described with great anguish yet still summed up succinctly. Lauren reveals that at one point, the whites of Peter’s eyes “were such a bright yellow that they scared me.” Lauren’s career, on the other hand, while still explained with brevity, does not always make for such memorable reading. It is not entirely thrilling to learn the specifics of Lauren’s admission to the Tufts Graduate School of Engineering or how she had to clean out her desk at one company after her position was relocated and she quit. Likewise, flat statements such as “Lauren was accepted to the four colleges she applied to” and how at one job “the training was conducted both on-site and also at the customers’ locations” do not exactly ring with excitement. Late in the story, it is informative for readers to learn why Lauren decided to earn a business degree. But her assertion about how, with her employer footing most of the bill, she didn’t have to worry about “the cost of the eighteen courses required in the program” sounds more like an advertisement than the words of a real person. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, her experiences convey lessons learned. Through all of her triumphs and tragedies, Lauren has much to teach readers.     

While a few topics can be dull, this tale adroitly portrays one woman’s complex journey.

Pub Date: June 19, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4808-1938-2

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 10, 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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