A romance with a clichéd premise but some political and emotional depth.

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Stumble Stones

A NOVEL

A TV writer and a banker try to return priceless diamonds to their rightful owners while neo-Nazi dealers in stolen merchandise pursue them in this romantic suspense novel.

Hallelujah Weiss is facing a bitter divorce—just like Pollyanna “Polly” Winthrop, the protagonist on the soap opera As the Planet Spins, for which she writes. Determined to spend as much of her philandering husband’s money as possible before he marries his secretary, Hallelujah boards a flight to Florence, Italy. Her friendly, attractive seatmate, Alexander Stone, hands her a package and then disappears for the rest of the flight. They finally meet again in Rome, and Hallelujah soon finds herself following the hedge fund trader to Switzerland to uncover the mystery of the diamonds in the package he gave her. It turns out that Alexander had discovered them hidden in his newly purchased home in Berlin. On his property, an unknown benefactor had placed plaques, or “stumble stones,” commemorating the original owners, the Hirschfeld family, who were sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Unbeknownst to Hallelujah and Alexander, a Hirschfeld survivor had a son with the SS officer who arrested the family; now, that son is a Nazi sympathizer who’s after the diamonds. Along the way, the story intersperses snippets of Hallelujah’s TV scripts, which she continues to write. As she’s pursued by modern-day dealers in art and jewels stolen from Holocaust victims, she tries to act as the fearless, vivacious Pollyanna would while also resisting falling in love with Alexander. One may simply count the romance-genre tropes—travel, a handsome stranger, a mystery package, an innocent embroiled in international intrigue, and a writer living vicariously through more colorful characters—and be able to predict most of this story. The dialogue and exposition are repetitive, as if scenes are following commercial breaks, and the Pollyanna segues further slow the pace. However, Baron (Sixth Sense, 2015, etc.) does make a few poignant points about how the international community looked away as lower-echelon Nazis remained free to sell treasures stolen from Jewish families and about how a Holocaust survivor’s appetite for vengeance has unintended consequences for the next generation.

A romance with a clichéd premise but some political and emotional depth.

Pub Date: Aug. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5092-0911-8

Page Count: 220

Publisher: The Wild Rose Press, Inc.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2016

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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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