Barenbaum has an eye for visual detail, but her story bogs down in sentiment, overplotting, and lecturing.

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A BEND IN THE STARS

A young Jewish physicist in 1914 Russia wants to photograph a solar eclipse to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity while his sister, a doctor, struggles to ensure their survival.

Readers not steeped in physics may not be aware that a British astronomer proved Einstein’s theory after a 1919 solar eclipse. In Barenbaum’s first novel, a historical thriller about physics and the travail of Russian Jews, fictional physicist Vanya lives with his sister, Miri, and their grandmother Baba in Kovno, where anti-Semitic violence erupts regularly. Vanya has been promised a position at Harvard and a life in America for his family if he can prove Einstein’s theory with equations and photos of the coming eclipse. On the eve of war, Miri’s fiance, Yuri, secretly agrees to enlist for military duty in exchange for Miri’s promotion to surgeon at the hospital where he’s trained her. To escape an influential university colleague itching to appropriate his research, Vanya also enlists, heading off with Yuri to Riga, where he hopes to join an American physicist bringing the necessary camera to photograph the eclipse. Meanwhile, as the noose tightens around the Jewish community in Kovno, Mira and Baba escape with the help of Sasha, a Jewish soldier Miri has met under harrowing circumstances. Baba heads to St. Petersburg while Miri and Sasha set off to find Yuri and Vanya. Unbeknownst to Miri, the two have left Riga searching for the elusive American. The siblings separately face multiplying crises that begin to run together—several train incidents, several knife incidents, etc. Vanya unexpectedly bonds with Yuri while Miri, no surprise, is inescapably drawn to passionate, valiant Sasha. Too bad for her because Yuri’s careful self-control is misleading. In fact, while Miri and Vanya are annoyingly gifted as well as earnestly moral and Miri’s darling Sasha is typically dashing and heroic, Yuri evolves into Barenbaum’s one fully developed character, heartbreakingly full of human contradictions.

Barenbaum has an eye for visual detail, but her story bogs down in sentiment, overplotting, and lecturing.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-4627-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 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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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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