A richly detailed but paint-by-numbers bildungsroman set in the Bronx.

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IF ANYONE ASKS, SAY I DIED FROM THE HEARTBREAKING BLUES

A single early summer night serves as a young man’s proving ground in this coming-of-age novel.

The Bronx, 1960. On his 18th birthday, Joey “Hunt” Hunter plans to take Debby Ann Murphy to the prom, a first date that he hopes will lead to something more. Still haunted by the death of his brother, Toby, the bookish, Fordham-bound Hunt lacks confidence, muscles, and dancing ability—in short, all the things that might make him attractive to his outer borough female peers. Predictably, his birthday is not exactly going as planned. Hunt gets a bloody nose from his dancing partner, Sal “the Butcher” Buccarelli, in his all-male gym class. Later at the prom, Debby turns out to be much more interested in the Butcher than in Hunt. Hunt’s attention wanders, too, when he sees a vision in a blue dress: “At least she seemed like a vision, the dark-eyed girl with flowing hair and a loose easy stride crossing in front of him on the dancefloor.” Hunt doesn’t know her name, and she quickly disappears into the night. His date with Debby fizzles, so Hunt launches a new plan: to celebrate his legal drinking age by barhopping across the neighborhood. Of course, the night continues to take unexpected turns. While the threat of a dangerous gang’s rumored raid on the neighborhood percolates in the atmosphere, the Butcher’s own Brando Boys might prove to be greater trouble for Hunt and his ragtag friends. As the hours tick down to dawn, the confused and heartbroken Hunt searches for love, inspiration, and meaning among the myriad characters of the Bronx.  Cioffari (The Bronx Kill, 2017, etc.) portrays Hunt—whose ambitious plans include composing an epic poem about the neighborhood and becoming the preeminent radio DJ in the tri-state area—as a man at odds with his surroundings: “He worried that this place, this Bronx of his heritage, would never be worthy of an epic. What was there that could possibly be heroic about prom night, els, souped-up ’55 Mercs, greaser Romeo football jocks like Sal the Butcher?” Even so, it’s clear that both Hunt and the author relish the milieu, and the book drips with a sincere nostalgia for the time and place. It’s a short novel at just over 150 pages, and it in no sense overstays its welcome, pressing forward continuously at the pace of the Roddle (“part duck-walk, part shimmy and part Lindy”). Despite the many wonderful details about Hunt’s world—his job as a “Desert Rat” selling orangeade at the beach, for instance—the protagonist is a bit too much of a type to be truly compelling. This flatness extends to the supporting cast, which isn’t really all that colorful by the standards of fiction set in midcentury New York. For all of Hunt’s uncertainty, readers will have none: Everything ends up just where they expect, with very little in the way of surprises. The tale may perfectly encapsulate the way a man of Hunt’s generation looks back on his own youth, but it doesn’t make for riveting reading for those with no attachments to that time or place.

A richly detailed but paint-by-numbers bildungsroman set in the Bronx.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-60489-238-3

Page Count: 156

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2019

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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 love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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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

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