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DIZZY CITY

In the latest from Griffin (Caucasus: A Journey to the Land Between Christianity and Islam, 2004, etc.), a petty criminal flees the carnage of the Great War and lands among con men in the Big Apple, where war of a different sort is being waged.

Londoner Ben Cramb’s crimes were very small indeed—a little boosting, a little fraud—but they were big enough to send him either to jail or the trenches. He and his chums choose the army. All but Ben fall to German shelling. After a period in the hospital where he is mistaken for an officer and gets a taste of a better life, he flees the war altogether, nursing a serious case of what was then called shell shock and is now called Posttraumatic stress disorder, stowing away on a freighter bound for he knows not where. He only wants to get the hell out of Europe. Where he does land is New York City in the still neutral United States. He’s not out of hot water, though. There are those in the city who will regard him not as a victim but a deserter. Robbed of his small stash of cash, Ben bottoms out in the Bowery where he is picked up by Julius McAteer, a professional con man who sees a role for the good looking Englishman in a major scam he’s about to pull. Ben, knowing that McAteer could turn him over to the Brits at any time, quickly learns his role in McAteer’s scheme. He’s the hook to bring Chicago moneyman Henry Jergens into McAteer’s range, where the flush Midwesterner can be fleeced in an elaborate hoax involving Tin Pan Alley. What neither McAteer nor Ben knows is that Jergens is on to them from the beginning, working his own con to revenge his mentor, whom McAteer robbed years earlier. Jergens’s accomplice is his flame, a beautiful actress for whom Ben, like most men, falls hard. When the various stings come to a climax, they involve the war Ben thought he had escaped.

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Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-58642-132-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Steerforth

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2007

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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 promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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