An engaging and thoughtful coming-of-age tale.

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THE RABBIT PRINCESS

THE PATH

Two royal siblings—turned into rabbits—search for a unicorn spirit to reverse the spell, discovering who they are in the process.

In the prologue, Naso, the jerboa mouse who narrates this debut novel, explains that a human palace’s mural depicts “an odd-looking, skinny rabbit with a crown…holding a sword in the air. That is the Rabbit Princess.” The main story, told in present tense, concerns how she came to be. In the opening chapters, the widower Emperor lives with his two children, the Princess Annie, 12, and her younger brother, Crown Prince Pika, 10, in a great palace. There, the spoiled children, especially Annie, “torment the staff all day long.” When she has a young boy thrown in jail for failing to kowtow, it’s the final straw, inciting the villagers to rebel. The Emperor and his general are sentenced to execution, and Shaman Wu turns the children into their favorite stuffed animals, banishing them to the Snow Forest. Annie is now a skinny, yellow rabbit, and Pika, a short, chubby white one. They meet a friend in Naso, who explains that a “heartless and unforgiving” tiger spirit named Moyen rules a massive kingdom, excepting Cloud Mountain and Dragon Desert. Qilin, a unicorn and “the mother of all spirits,” lives in the Desert and could help the rabbits, but Moyen has war on his mind and special plans for Annie. The siblings have some animal and spirit allies, but the journey won’t be easy. Nevertheless, with courage, new fighting skills, and especially hope, the rabbits might be able to find the unicorn—and their purpose. In his book, Chen offers a well-written fable about growing up through confronting shortcomings and learning to be of service to others. The siblings’ transformations into living stuffed animals is a neatly symbolic way of showing how they’ve become alienated from their human nature. Annie has the longest way to go in dropping her selfish ways and accepting her metamorphosis as a path toward self-knowledge. At first, jailed with her brother, her insight stretches only as far as her immediate family. In a “moment of pure clarity,” she realizes “she just wants her family safe.” Later, she earns respect by her focus on healing and helping other animals. In addition, the novel’s setting is intriguing, with its mix of more modern culture (for example, the stuffed animals) and figures from Chinese legend (the unicorn). While often ruminative about subjects like moral choices and the nature of evil, the story also delivers exciting action scenes and bold descriptions; Moyen’s “stark yellow eyes look like dead demons burning.” Episodes of animals killing one another might be tough for tenderhearted readers to take. The author’s economic black-and-white sketches help readers visualize the siblings’ alterations and nicely capture the various animals’ personalities, such as a panda’s searching look.

An engaging and thoughtful coming-of-age tale.

Pub Date: Jan. 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73271-890-6

Page Count: 164

Publisher: Osani Studios, Inc.

Review Posted Online: July 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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