An enjoyable beach read with a likable heroine.

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SHADY PARK SECRETS

From the Shady Park Chronicles series , Vol. 3

This third installment of a series maintains the author’s satirical take on modern American suburban life while dealing with some serious societal problems.

The Shady Park characters return, with Nicole Ernst taking the starring role in this volume. Nicole is the seventh grade teacher who was accidentally shot at an open school board meeting convened to overturn its unfortunate decision to switch to fundamentalist textbooks. She also got into serious trouble when she discovered that Chelsea Grosbeck, the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, had plagiarized her school essay. Now 37-year-old Nicole has been transferred to Northbrook High School, where she is teaching a group of generally disinterested, ill-informed teenagers. It doesn’t take long for her to run afoul of her new boss, Principal Matthew Higgenbottom, who has been dragging his feet authorizing delivery of the nonfundamentalist books ordered by the board. Nicole makes an end run around Higgenbottom, and the volumes suddenly arrive. But more trouble is on the way. Fifteen-year-old student Juan Moreno begins receiving unsolicited naked photographs on his cellphone from an eighth-grade girl, and suddenly Shady Park becomes engulfed in a sexting scandal. When one of these photos is sent to Nicole’s cellphone, she is drawn into a dangerous undercover police operation. Simultaneously, she becomes romantically involved with Ralph Novich, the relationship-shy editor of the Shady Park Ledger, whose wife left him for her Virginia-based true love: her first cousin. Keech’s (Shady Park Panic, 2018, etc.) narrative rests somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Desperate Housewives. From ostentatious McMansions to crooked politicians and religious zealots, little escapes the author’s sharp eye for hypocrisy and amusing excess. Here Keech describes Nicole feeding her cat: She “stopped by to serve Smokey some Cod, Sole, and Shrimp Paté in Florentine Sauce.” There are strange characters aplenty. Chief among them is Andre Smyth, a tenderhearted neurotic who can’t answer a simple question in less than a tangents-filled paragraph. Despite the quirky cast and more than a hint of melodrama, the author uses well-directed sarcasm to highlight some critical, real-world issues: anti-immigration fervor, anti-science mania, and child pornography. In addition, readers should find the story’s conclusion satisfying.

An enjoyable beach read with a likable heroine.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73305-240-5

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Real Nice Books

Review Posted Online: July 20, 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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