A fine tale of kids’ games with surprisingly high stakes.

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The Less We Touch

A NOVEL

A snake pit of cutthroat ethical ambiguity and twisted psychodrama—otherwise known as junior high girls sports—is explored in this rich, sprawling coming-of-age saga.

In the wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego, Oregon, athletics rule the lives of many kids—and even more so their parents. Among them are seventh-grader Layla Blessing and her girlfriends on the Lake Oswego Junior High Lakers basketball squad and the local soccer club; Layla’s dad, Alex, who winds up coaching both teams to his daughter’s frequent exasperation; Emily, a Chinese-American soccer whiz with an eating disorder brought on by her tiger-parents’ perfectionism; and Chelsea, a court phenom for whom basketball is the only way of engaging with her father. A year in the lives of these and many other characters proceeds through practices, organizational meetings, tournament trips, miscellaneous school activities, and games that the author narrates with detailed play-by-play and strategic analyses that are gripping enough for a Final Four showdown. Journalist Duin (Oil and Water, 2011) uses the subculture of teen sports as a window onto the soul of suburbia, on its genteel yet manic competitiveness and its outsized investments, both material and psychological, in the achievements of offspring. The narrative unfolds in long, luxuriant scenes of ordinary life: girls tanning and gossiping on a dock, awkward school dances, bantering corporate golf games, chance encounters at Starbucks, dinner tables seething with unspoken recriminations. Seemingly trivial sports contests anchor an adult novel that shows us shadows—a charismatic coach turns out to be a masterfully manipulative predator—and real depth in the girls’ (and their parents’) struggles to understand the difference between the rules of the game and genuine morality. Duin’s subtle prose renders all this with pitch-perfect characterizations and razor-sharp social nuance. Sometimes he lays on the pitiless existentialism a bit too thick (“I’ll miss the savage beauty of it,” muses one hard man, reflecting on the ruthless Darwinian culling of weak from strong in seventh-grade girls’ soccer. “Honor and dignity don’t win in the end”). Still, there’s drama beyond the scoreboard in watching these children—and adults—grow up a little more.

A fine tale of kids’ games with surprisingly high stakes.

Pub Date: May 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-1618460127

Page Count: 470

Publisher: Library Partners Press

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 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 love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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