A simple, often engaging tale that unravels in the final third when the author abandons Georgia for Baghdad and never gets...

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THE CAILIFFS OF BAGHDAD, GEORGIA

A story set in rural Georgia before World War II that introduces readers to an odd group of characters brought together by a woman ahead of her time.

Stefaniak (The Turk and My Mother, 2004, etc.) sets the stage for likable narrator Gladys Cailiff, a smart, witty and incisive 11-year-old who lives in the tiny town of Threestep, Ga. Gladys’ story begins with the arrival of Miss Grace Spivey, the town’s new schoolteacher, a diminutive redhead with a taste for adventure and a propensity for stirring up trouble. As it turns out, Miss Spivey spent some time in Baghdad and decides to duplicate its streets in Threestep after reading parts of The Arabian Nights to her enraptured students. She also very loosely adapts some of those stories into a play that, along with turkey shoots and dunking booths, they hope will draw visitors from miles around to Threestep. But Miss Spivey doesn’t do anything the easy way. She riles up the local school superintendent with her persistence in teaching the “colored” children who are not allowed decent textbooks. Theo Boykin, the Cailiffs’ young neighbor and a budding genius, is the main object of Miss Spivey’s efforts to give the area’s black community a crack at equality, but her efforts—much admired by the Cailiff family—always seem to go askew. When she brings in a camel herder and his camels for the big night, all of Miss Spivey’s past indiscretions seem destined to catch up with her. Young Gladys is a great narrator, but when May, her perennially pregnant older sister, takes over, the book veers into a mind-numbing story within a story within a story within a story that makes the reader long for Gladys to boot all of those other storytellers and retake the helm.

A simple, often engaging tale that unravels in the final third when the author abandons Georgia for Baghdad and never gets back on track.  

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-393-06310-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2010

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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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