Old-fashioned but never stodgy; a charming story about a bygone time where even magic seems possible.

YELLOW BIRD

In Johnson’s novel, faith and mysticism bring two people on uncertain paths together in the mountains of Appalachia.

On the surface, Amanda Abernathy and Cody Stone have little in common, save their mental infirmities. Amanda is a 17-year-old who, after a serious head injury, now lives with vivid, waking nightmares. Cody, meanwhile, is just another young veteran returned home from Vietnam with debilitating shellshock, his mind ever calling him back to the horrors he witnessed in the jungle. But in their shared “spells” an inexplicable bond emerges, a mystical connection between two people who have never met and don’t even know each other’s names. Their paths will eventually cross on South Mountain at Yellow Bird—the dilapidated bookstore that Amanda inherited from her grandmother—but not before weathering small-town scandals, skirmishes with the local coal company and a disaster of almost biblical proportions. Johnson’s debut is, at its core, a pastoral tale, a celebration of the rustic music and rich traditions of the hills and hollows of Virginia and West Virginia and their ability to offer relief and purpose in a harsh, lonesome world. The narrative employs a unique dual tone, portraying its everyday events and folksy setting with blunt, obtuse language while contrasting that with lyrical, dreamlike prose for Amanda and Cody’s trances. Occasionally the latter is overly vague, but much of the novel’s appeal is in its coyness with details, and since the characters are so willing to accept the strange or the spiritual, the wealth of unanswered questions isn’t as distressing as one might expect. Though the novel is not devoid of action, it’s at its best in the small moments, when characters are talking, sharing stories or enjoying meals. Quaintness is what the novel honors, and in its depiction of this quaintness, the book excels.

Old-fashioned but never stodgy; a charming story about a bygone time where even magic seems possible.

Pub Date: June 24, 2010

ISBN: 978-0578069739

Page Count: 151

Publisher: Garden Gate Farm

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2011

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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