A technically uneven novel from a skilled and promising writer.

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THE GOLDEN STATE

A debut novel about new motherhood and political unrest from the editor of the online literary magazine The Millions.

Daphne has a beautiful baby girl and an amazing job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. She also has a husband who is stranded half a world away because of an unfortunate—and seemingly irresolvable—issue with U.S. Immigration. One day, the pressure of juggling these irreconcilable realities becomes a bit too much, so Daphne puts her daughter, Honey, in the car seat and heads for the wilds of Altavista, California. This is her mother’s hometown, and, after her mother’s death, Daphne became the owner of her grandparents’ trailer. In a narrative that takes place over 10 days, Kiesling offers a painfully honest portrait of motherhood and offers glimpses of a California that few ever see—or even know exists. Life with a new baby is an underexplored topic in American literature. One of the only authors who comes to mind is Lydia Davis. Kiesling is similarly honest about this strange, disorienting time, but, where Davis is a master of microfiction, Kiesling covers this territory in exhaustive—and, frankly, exhausting—detail. On the one hand, this feels like a public service; on the other hand, anyone who has lived through this experience might not want to revisit it. The depiction of Eastern California—a land of cattle ranchers and desert, far, far away from the ocean and Hollywood—is both depressing and fascinating. Like so many American places, Altavista has seen better days. Resentment is a boom industry. The fact that Daphne is descended from a long-established family is offset by the fact that her husband is Turkish. There’s even a group of secessionists, and the novel takes an unexpected turn when Daphne becomes embroiled in their revolution. This plot shift feels quite timely, but it also feels like it belongs to another book. Kiesling is a talented author, though, with a unique voice. She’s very smart, very funny, and wonderfully empathetic.

A technically uneven novel from a skilled and promising writer.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-16483-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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