A well-drawn cast and lively prose effectively balance this realistic portrait of the hardships and triumphs of black urban...

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THE JUSTUS GIRLZ

A rollicking, exuberant debut, peopled with the likes of Monsieur Daddy Baby, Peaches, and Bay Girl, offers a look into Philadelphia’s African-American community.

Beginning with the mysterious murder of Peaches, found shot to death at 43 on her front porch, the narrative soon introduces three childhood friends reunited at her funeral. Tough Sally Mae, proper Jan, and beautiful Roach, along with Peaches, formed the Justus Girlz, a drill team created out of their need to succeed at something on their own terms. Life later took them in different directions—Sally Mae became a civil rights activist, Jan married and started her own business, after a failed marriage Roach converted to Islam—but when they once again come together they find their youthful bond is strong enough to get them through midlife’s new set of challenges. (Widowed Jan is suicidal; Roach is in a custody battle with her former husband.) The story's at its best when re-creating the sights and sounds of black Philadelphia in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Peaches, a prostitute’s daughter, is shuttled off to Uncle Elmo, an upstanding policeman who molests her, then rescued by eccentric cross-dresser Vaa, who makes sure she's safely placed with Jan’s family. But the damage is done: Peaches begins drinking and is pregnant before she leaves high school. The flashbacks follow the ups and downs of all the girls’ lives and all the odd characters that accompany them. The past intrudes further on the present when Sally Mae learns she may be charged with the murder of an old boyfriend from the days when she was an L.A. go-go dancer known as Mustang Sally. Together again, with Peaches’s feisty spirit guiding them (plus a little voodoo help from a relative down South), the three remaining Justus Girlz prevail, proving the suitability of their name.

A well-drawn cast and lively prose effectively balance this realistic portrait of the hardships and triumphs of black urban life.

Pub Date: July 16, 2001

ISBN: 0-06-018476-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2001

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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