A heartening read for blues fans as well as anyone interested in the history of American music and civil rights.

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CROSS DOG BLUES

BOOK ONE OF A GREAT LONG STORY TO TELL

In his debut novel, Brock weaves together two unexpectedly intertwined tales to illustrate the wide-reaching impact of the blues on American history.

Brock begins with the story of a young Charlie Patton and his family fleeing their Mississippi home in 1903 to escape racial persecution. Under the tutelage of a man named Henry, Charlie learned to play a harrowingly soulful form of music, coined “the blues.” Patton then devised a method of using rhythm as a tool for change, often altering political lyrics and subversively relying on the music to communicate his message. Of his guitar, Patton says, “This is a lock-pick to the back door of anybody’s home and soul.” At a time when blacks were not allowed as patrons in clubs, Charlie and his companions found their way through the door as musicians, reaching the ears and hearts of the masses. Patton recognized that those who wouldn’t listen to him speak for a minute would listen to his music for hours. Since many details of Patton’s life are widely disputed, it’s difficult to discern where the truth begins. Nevertheless, Brock’s story captures the essence of Patton’s character and his mission to revolutionize the South. Interwoven with Patton’s biography is the story of a young white man named Franklyn O’Connor, traveling in 2002 through the very same Southern land in search of his father. Instead, O’Connor meets an old black man who plays the blues and recounts his life story. It’s unclear if O’Connor is also based on a real person, but he serves as a witness to the old man’s retelling of the past and his continued experiences with racism in the 21st century. Chock-full of poignant passages and insightful dialogue about the deep, affecting power of music, the alternating narratives pass quickly right up until the end. Most chapters conclude with a cliffhanger, until a final cliffhanger indicates a sequel on the way.

A heartening read for blues fans as well as anyone interested in the history of American music and civil rights.

Pub Date: April 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0991132027

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Bogie Road Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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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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