Light on in-depth character development, but an engaging reminder of the quiet, determined heroines who advanced women’s...

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THE MILLINER'S THREAD

A debut historical novel pays tribute to a woman who repeatedly defied 19th-century conventions to follow her own path.

Addie Bonney, Friedman’s great-grandmother, is born in 1857 in southeastern Michigan and learns to sew as a child. By age 14, she completes high school and is already a talented seamstress. It is during this time that she makes a fateful promise to a young man she has known since childhood. Charles Jerrells is joining Custer’s army, and he begs Addie to wait for him. Reluctantly, she agrees. For the next four years, Charles is away and the seamstress develops a substantial, devoted following; Addie opens her own millinery shop behind the General Store. Then Charles returns. One of the few survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, he arrives disabled by a wounded leg, drunk, coarse, and abusive, demanding that Addie honor her promise. The marriage is disastrous. In a breathtaking, vulgarity-laden, and emotion-filled section of the narrative, Charles beats and rapes her on the kitchen floor. She becomes pregnant and flees to her parents. Readers will likely gasp when they hear her loving parents say she must return to Charles after the baby is born. When Charles tries to kill her two years later, her father relents and arranges an immediate divorce, despite the scandal it will cause. Addie does marry again, but her arrangement with her husband, Elvin Ayres, is on her own terms. She has two more children—and rebuilds her business. Friedman’s prose is generally reportorial in nature. What readers know about her characters, even the protagonist, comes primarily from descriptions of their actions. The audience observes them rather than feels them. But the story itself, supplemented with a variety of family documents and newspaper clippings, offers a wealth of historical context. And Addie’s advice to her daughter (the author’s grandmother) vividly encapsulates a modus operandi that will be echoed by future women seeking to overturn society’s stifling rules: “Vera, you cannot depend on a man.…You need something to fall back on.”  

Light on in-depth character development, but an engaging reminder of the quiet, determined heroines who advanced women’s rights.

Pub Date: July 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73252-244-2

Page Count: 199

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 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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