The realities of day-to-day existence in 1340s Europe are so viscerally represented that readers will readily accept the...

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THE SCRIBE OF SIENA

A New York neurosurgeon finds herself in medieval Siena facing a career change, plague, and true love.

Beatrice Trovato, 33, is ripped from her surgical work by the untimely death of her brother, Ben, a historian who was researching a persistent mystery about his adopted home, Siena, Italy: why, besides misfortune, rats, and fleas, had post-pandemic Siena never quite recovered its prominence as a Tuscan city-state compared to its rival, Florence, which the bubonic plague also attacked? Taking a sabbatical from brain surgery, Beatrice moves into Ben’s centuries-old Siena row house and sifts through dusty archives, intent on continuing her brother’s quest. While in a church, perusing the journal of early Renaissance fresco master Gabriele Accorsi, she blacks out and somehow (the physics of time travel are not this novel’s concern) wakes up in 1347 Siena. There follows an entertaining junket as Beatrice searches for the proper medieval garb (narrowly escaping the Sienese wardrobe police), enjoys the food (Ur-farm-to-table), and communicates fluently with 14th-century Tuscans using modern Italian (linguistic niceties are also not a concern). Her rare, for a woman, literacy skills land Beatrice a job as a scribe at Siena’s Ospedale, the local monastery/hospital/poorhouse, where she copies Dante manuscripts, legal contracts, and other documents. She meets Gabriele, who’s been hired to paint a religious mural outside her workroom wall. After he rescues her from a monastery fire, their very chaste courtship begins. Accorsi had already imagined her and painted her into other work, which she had puzzled over in the 21st century. When he takes her home to meet his family, they turn out to live in Ben’s future house. Meanwhile a subplot reveals more about the enigmas Ben was pursuing—involving the Florentine Medicis. A trip to Sicily, where the plague begins, more time travel, life-threatening illness, and other trials, virtual and literal, ensue before the novel’s questions, mainly involving personal lives as opposed to Back to the Future ripple effects, are answered.

The realities of day-to-day existence in 1340s Europe are so viscerally represented that readers will readily accept the fanciful premise.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5225-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017

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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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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