An admirable dramatization of a real-world event, with a hero who’s much better at helping others than himself.

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CHIP CHIP

In Jaquays’ debut historical drama, treacherous waters and armed Cuban guards await a crawfisherman transporting refugees during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

First mate Shorty is a Yankee who’s proven himself working on a crawfish boat in the Florida Keys. But Dagger, the boat’s captain, has a way to make some real money by taking advantage of the Cuban exodus and bringing people to the U.S. Shorty docks at Mariel Harbor in Cuba and waits for officials to OK the request for taking refugees. Tensions are high: law enforcement and military are between Havana and the harbor, ready to fire at locals attempting to flee the country as stowaways. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Mario, at the start of his unwelcome but mandatory military service, risks a daring escape. Jaquays’ novel features melodrama and a bit of suspense with a rich historical backdrop. The story is truly about Shorty, but the Mariel boatlift isn’t mere decoration since it drives the main plot. Mario’s flight from his squad and his dangerous swim to the harbor, for example, are highlights, and his family’s endeavor to reach American shores is equally gripping. Shorty, too, is a sympathetic protagonist; it’s abundantly clear that he cares about his passengers, befriending an elderly woman in particular, despite knowing very little Spanish. He likewise disregards his own safety to make repairs to the boat’s exterior while at sea, just to ensure that everyone reaches the U.S. Shorty’s personal story, however, is decidedly less engaging. He has a girlfriend, Kim Sue, though the narrative refers to him at least once as her fiance. Their relationship seems perfectly fine when they’re together, but later descriptions, with Kim Sue back in America, are increasingly dismissive. Their relationship is nothing more than a lead-up to Shorty’s infatuation with Cuba-born Rosa, an unquestionably worthy woman who saves someone from certain death by hypothermia. The ending provides closure for Shorty, but Jaquays smartly allows readers to see what has become (or will become) of both Rosa and Mario.

An admirable dramatization of a real-world event, with a hero who’s much better at helping others than himself.

Pub Date: March 2, 2015

ISBN: 978-1508545378

Page Count: 164

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: June 12, 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 promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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