This is a thought-provoking debut, and Giddings is a young writer to watch.

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LAKEWOOD

A first-time novelist offers medical horror with a political edge.

Lena Johnson’s grandmother has just died, leaving behind a staggering amount of debt. Lena’s mother is debilitated by an illness—or collection of illnesses—no one can diagnose or cure. When Lena is offered a position that pays an incredible sum of money and full health-insurance coverage for her mom, she feels that she has no choice but to leave college and become a research subject in a secret government project. Her participation requires her to lie to family and friends about what she’s doing, and she signs a nondisclosure agreement that discourages her from ever revealing the torture she and other people of color will endure at the hands of white doctors. The historical underpinnings of Giddings’ premise are obvious. Lena follows in the footsteps of black men whose syphilis went untreated even though they were promised health care for joining the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and her experience echoes that of the enslaved women James Marion Sims brutalized while testing new gynecological techniques. It might seem that, unlike them, Lena has a choice, but does she? The position she finds herself in after her grandmother’s death is a reminder that hundreds of years of structural racism have made it difficult for black families to accumulate and pass on wealth. But this novel isn’t just about Lena’s physical ordeal. The emotional and mental strains of being black in an environment seemingly designed to punish blackness—and the necessity to pretend that everything is fine—are devastating, too. At the novel’s beginning, Lena is in the habit of noting when a person she’s describing is white, a powerful rejoinder to the widespread tendency to consider whiteness the default American identity. Toward the end, she has to consciously remind herself that she is still human. In terms of style and storytelling, Giddings doesn’t always succeed, but there’s no denying the potency of her message.

This is a thought-provoking debut, and Giddings is a young writer to watch.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-291319-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

THE FIFTH SEASON

From the The Broken Earth series , Vol. 1

In the first volume of a trilogy, a fresh cataclysm besets a physically unstable world whose ruling society oppresses its most magically powerful inhabitants.

The continent ironically known as the Stillness is riddled with fault lines and volcanoes and periodically suffers from Seasons, civilization-destroying tectonic catastrophes. It’s also occupied by a small population of orogenes, people with the ability to sense and manipulate thermal and kinetic energy. They can quiet earthquakes and quench volcanoes…but also touch them off. While they’re necessary, they’re also feared and frequently lynched. The “lucky” ones are recruited by the Fulcrum, where the brutal training hones their powers in the service of the Empire. The tragic trap of the orogene's life is told through three linked narratives (the link is obvious fairly quickly): Damaya, a fierce, ambitious girl new to the Fulcrum; Syenite, an angry young woman ordered to breed with her bitter and frighteningly powerful mentor and who stumbles across secrets her masters never intended her to know; and Essun, searching for the husband who murdered her young son and ran away with her daughter mere hours before a Season tore a fiery rift across the Stillness. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun, 2012, etc.) is utterly unflinching; she tackles racial and social politics which have obvious echoes in our own world while chronicling the painfully intimate struggle between the desire to survive at all costs and the need to maintain one’s personal integrity. Beneath the story’s fantastic trappings are incredibly real people who undergo intense, sadly believable pain.

With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-22929-6

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2016

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