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DANCING WITH LANGSTON

A family tale that skillfully brings the magic of the Harlem Renaissance into the present.

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A busy woman’s visit to an estranged relative reveals an unexpected family connection to a famous poet in this debut novel.

Tomorrow night, Carrie Stevens will be on the red-eye to Seattle, where her husband, Bill, has just accepted a new job. This afternoon, she needs to meet with her lawyer to finalize the sale of their condo. But first, she has to go to Harlem to keep a promise she made to her recently deceased father. Her dad’s cousin Ella is being thrown out of her apartment—the entire building is about to be demolished—and Carrie needs to get her into an assisted living facility. “She has a gift for you,” her father’s final note reads. “It’s something of value that I’m ashamed that I couldn’t give you—and too afraid to give you myself. Carrie, I want this to make it right. I want you to be happy.” Carrie only met Ella as a baby. Carrie’s mother thought Ella, a cabaret dancer who lived for years in Paris, would be a bad influence. When Carrie arrives, the elderly Ella immediately insists that she is not moving anywhere. Ella turns out to be full of surprises. She has severe, mysterious facial scars, for one. She has a man named Jack living there with her, for another. Perhaps craziest of all, she has lots of pictures and books by poet Langston Hughes, who it turns out was her cousin—and Carrie’s father’s cousin as well. Langston and Carrie’s dad didn’t get along, unfortunately. As Carrie desperately tries to pack some of the woman’s things into the bags she brought, Ella offers hints and anecdotes about her past—and draws a few out of her visitor as well. But what is this mysterious gift that Ella supposedly has? Well, in Ella’s words, Carrie will have to earn it.

Skeeter’s prose is as smooth and confident as Ella herself: “I saw that Jack’s cane was on the sofa and he was leaning on Ella. They were dancing jerkily, as fast as their old legs would let them. Actually, they kept up with the beat very well. In that living room with its many decades-old artifacts, they could have been dancing in Paris or Harlem in their heyday.” The novel cleverly mourns the lost world of Jazz Age Harlem, as represented by an apartment full of artifacts that is literally about to be knocked down. The supporting characters—including Hughes, a ghost who casts his iconic shadow over all the rest—are well drawn, and Carrie is a relatable and likable protagonist. The roles that Carrie and Ella play in regard to each other—Carrie wanted to be a dancer herself, and Ella is essentially a fairy godmother—are perhaps a bit too neat, and readers will quickly surmise where the story is headed. That said, the author is a capable writer, and the world that she creates is evocative and amusing enough for readers to happily linger in for the book’s breezy, 206-page length.

A family tale that skillfully brings the magic of the Harlem Renaissance into the present.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-950584-19-2

Page Count: 206

Publisher: Green Writers Press

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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