An intoxicating look inside a world of innovative new media.

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RADIO GIRLS

A NOVEL

A bright, appealing novel about the early days of the BBC and the women behind its brilliant programming.

When Maisie Musgrave finds a job as a secretary at the new, and rather controversial, British Broadcasting Corporation, she’s grateful: Maisie is a plain, inexperienced girl, and in the years after the first world war, employment can be hard to find. At first, she feels out of place at the BBC; the halls are abuzz, the employees flush with excitement over the new technology. Stratford (The Moonlight Brigade, 2011, etc.) is wonderful in her depictions of that ferment, the democratizing new media which broadcasts information to masses of people: “From Penzance to John o’Groats, anyone who had a wireless and the license fee could tune in and hear a symphony, poetry, gardening advice, a thriller, a debate, scenes from new plays, sporting events, stories about places scattered throughout the globe, because why shouldn’t a farmwife in South Yorkshire know something of Shanghai, or San Francisco, or São Paulo?” Soon, Maisie finds a mentor in the brilliant and charismatic Hilda Matheson, director of the Talks Department, which broadcasts lectures on nearly every subject imaginable, from literature to politics to gardening. The BBC is one of the only companies to allow female employees to advance beyond the secretarial level, and Hilda is radiant in her prominent position. She’s also kind and exceedingly generous toward the young Maisie, who begins to follow in her footsteps. It isn’t long before Maisie is promoted and finds her ambitions expanding beyond the husband and family that were once all she yearned for. This depiction of female friendship and support is one of the great strengths of Stratford’s novel, which so capably describes its characters’ thirst for knowledge, for information of all kinds. But the book falters when it ventures into a conspiracy involving British fascists, secret meetings, and MI5. Maisie’s attempts at sleuthing strain belief. Still, the novel is so energetic and fresh, it more than makes up for its missteps.

An intoxicating look inside a world of innovative new media.

Pub Date: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-451-47556-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: NAL/Berkley

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2016

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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