An ingenious story weighed down by overintellectualized writing.

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WHERE WILL MY HEART BEAT?

In this debut novel, a young man flees his home to be free of a dangerously disturbed brother, leaving behind both considerable privilege and his first love. 

Adel Jacob is born to a prominent family; his father—Jacob Jacob—is a successful businessman and the mayor of their town, Crescent. The earnest and kind boy is easy prey for his domineering brother, Aslan, whom Adel finally realizes is more than just a garden-variety bully: He’s quite “insane,” and “something in him was beyond evil.” But despite Adel’s pleas for help, his parents are indulgent of Aslan’s increasingly dark behavior, to the point of complicity. Finally, after Aslan pushes him down a flight of stairs, nearly killing him and crippling him for life, Adel decides to leave Crescent for good despite his profound devotion to his first love, Mona. Years later, Adel returns home to confront an unresolved past and learns the truth about what happened to Mona in his absence. Hassanieh cleverly embeds that plot within another—as an adult, Adel meets Serene, a physical therapist assigned to treat him. She’s wracked with anxiety, temporarily separated from her husband and child, and plagued by troublingly vivid dreams. She slowly realizes those dreams bear some mysterious link to Adel’s life. The connection between Adel and Serene is immediately electric. There seems to be some promise that her dreams will allow him to fully comprehend his fate and that his destiny is the key to her peace of mind. The author impressively conjures a complex tale brimming with unpredictable twists and turns, and her double narrative is pulled off with artful delicacy. But her prose is gawky and stiff: “Serene felt a wave of hostility emanating from Shatha. Why do Shatha and society in general view nonconformists as a fissure in their aggregate?” In addition, Hassanieh grasps so laboriously for philosophical profundity that she often produces ponderous prose instead: “Celestial retribution cannot ease my quandary, for I was nothing but a malleable entity, kneaded by the adults in my life.”

An ingenious story weighed down by overintellectualized writing.

Pub Date: Nov. 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4808-7002-4

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 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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