An unwieldy epic spans generations and continents while remaining, at its core, somehow improbable.

READ REVIEW

ON THE SICKLE'S EDGE

Set mostly in the Soviet Union, this ambitious novel takes on memory, identity, and family ties.

Frankel’s (Bloodlines, 2012) third novel is a multigenerational epic that spans three continents and almost three times as many decades. It begins with one man’s impossible decision: Isaak Shtein, a Jewish Latvian refugee in South Africa, has lost his wife. He has five children. He decides to return to Latvia for help from his family. He can afford to bring with him all but two teenage sons; he plans to return to them before long. Unfortunately, World War I begins soon after Isaak arrives in Latvia. He marries his late brother’s wife and the two flee, with their combined children, to Russia. Then they make another hard decision: they’ll hide their Jewish identity and hope for a better life. The first portion of Frankel’s behemoth is narrated by Lena, Isaak’s only surviving daughter, who grows up in Stalinist Moscow, making a life for herself amid the limitations and paranoia of that society. Lena’s granddaughter, Darya, narrates the second part of the book; by marrying a cruel, sadistic man in the upper echelons of the KGB, she has endangered herself, her children, and her extended family. That’s where Steven comes in. Steven Green, the third narrator, is a descendant of one of the sons Isaak Shtein left, decades ago, in South Africa. Now a painter living in Boston, Steven has begun writing letters to his Soviet relatives. When he goes to visit them, he falls in love with Darya and, soon after, is entangled in a plot of intrigue and violence that has him in way over his head. Frankel is an engaging storyteller, and his depictions of Soviet life are interesting. But his characters are two-dimensional and his efforts to complicate them seem trite. The dialogue, which features Russian speakers spouting American idioms, is unconvincing. Worse, most of the book’s action is simply summarized, while many of the scenes he does allow us to glimpse are mundane and sometimes repetitive. A heavy round of editing may have helped but as it stands, the book is overstuffed and the ending unlikely.

An unwieldy epic spans generations and continents while remaining, at its core, somehow improbable.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-944884-10-9

Page Count: 471

Publisher: Dialogos

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

more