Smart, funny, and compulsively readable: this one may finally win the underrecognized author the wider audience her talent...

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THE ROMANCE READER'S GUIDE TO LIFE

Two very different sisters, their post–World War II cosmetics business, a swashbuckling pirate novel, and a dead dog with a shoe fetish are among the wildly disparate ingredients Pywell (Everything After, 2006, etc.) stirs into a zesty fictional stew.

The author throw us off balance from the get-go, as older sister Lilly opens the story by revealing that she’s dead. She wants us to know she’s not as reckless as little sister Neave will shortly tell us, even though the narrative counterpoint between the siblings soon makes it clear that Lilly is dead because of her poor judgment about men. Neave initially takes us back to Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1936, when the bookish 11-year-old begins reading aloud to elderly, wealthy Mrs. Daniels. When she helps herself to a book from the shelf her employer has told her to stay away from until she’s less young and impressionable, Neave discovers the addictive pleasures of romance fiction. The Pirate Lover adds a third narrative strand with its tale of inevitably young, inevitably gorgeous, inevitably poor Electra, who is in danger of being married off by her mother to a wealthy nobleman in the glittering Paris of the vaguely Napoleonic period favored by romance writers. Pywell knows the genre conventions, but she tweaks them to paint a very dark picture of male-female relationships (the nobleman is an out-and-out sadist) reinforced by Lilly’s checkered marital career (second husband Ricky is particularly scary). Male menace is countered by female empowerment as the sisters build Be Your Best cosmetics to provide an income and self-respect for the women who sell its products. The plot verges on zany—don’t even ask about the dead dog—but Pywell also crafts mounting suspense that overwhelms any readerly skepticism. And thank goodness her tough, unsentimental take on sexual and familial power dynamics is softened by the fortuitous arrival of decent men for both Electra and Neave.

Smart, funny, and compulsively readable: this one may finally win the underrecognized author the wider audience her talent deserves.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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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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