A grand entertainment, smart and well-paced, and a book that promises good work to come.

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THE NIX

Sparkling, sweeping debut novel that takes in a large swath of recent American history and pop culture and turns them on their sides.

The reader will be forgiven for a certain sinking feeling on knowing that the protagonist of Hill’s long yarn is—yes—a writer, and worse, a writer teaching at a college, though far happier playing online role-playing games involving elves and orcs and such than doling out wisdom on the classics of Western literature. Samuel Andresen-Anderson—there’s a reason for that doubled-up last name—owes his publisher a manuscript, and now the publisher is backing out with the excuse, “Primarily, you’re not famous anymore,” and suing to get back the advance in the bargain. What’s a fellow to do? Well, it just happens that Samuel’s mother, who has been absent for decades, having apparently run off in the hippie days to follow her bliss, is back on the scene, having become famous herself for chucking a rock at a rising right-wing demagogue, the virulent Gov. Sheldon Packer. Hill opens by running through the permutations of journalism that promote her from back to front page, with a run of ever more breathless headlines until a “clever copywriter” arrives at the sobriquet “Packer Attacker,” “which is promptly adopted by all the networks and incorporated into the special logos they make for the coverage.” Where did mom run off to? Why? What has she been up to? Andresen-Anderson is too busy asking questions to feel too sorry for what his editor calls “your total failure to become a famous writer.” There are hints of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys as Hill, by way of his narrative lead, wrestles alternately converging and fugitive stories onto the page, stories that range from the fjords of Norway to the streets of “Czechago” in the heady summer of 1968. There are also hints of Pynchon, though, as Hill gently lampoons advertising culture, publishing, academia, politics, and everything in between.

A grand entertainment, smart and well-paced, and a book that promises good work to come.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94661-9

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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