Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the...

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GOOD KINGS BAD KINGS

Playwright/activist Nussbaum makes her fiction debut with a scathing look at life inside an institution for disabled juveniles.

Located next to the old Chicago stockyards, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center is hardly as nurturing as its name suggests. Formerly state-run, ILLC is now operated by a private company whose main interest is in maximizing profits; while Whitney-Palm cuts costs and corners, ILLC’s doctors get kickbacks for ordering millions of dollars in unnecessary tests for their patients. One of the “houseparents” is sexually abusing a terrified incest survivor; one of the guards is a brutal bully who eventually breaks a boy’s jaw. Even the well-meaning employees are so exhausted and overstretched due to staff cuts that one wheelchair-bound kid dies of third-degree burns from a scalding shower when left unsupervised. Nussbaum unfolds her story in a polyphonic narrative whose colorful individual voices somewhat mitigate the parade of grim particulars. Tough yet vulnerable Yessenia is a particularly engaging narrator among the residents, and gentle, caring guard Ricky has a touching romance with Joanne, a disabled activist who does clerical work at ILLC and serves as the novel’s political conscience. Nussbaum doesn’t deal in shades of gray: Whitney-Palm donates big bucks to Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure its misdeeds go unpunished, and odious VP Tim denies workers raises while enjoying his sailboat and house in Florida. Since the author herself works with disabled teens, these all-black villains may well be based on fact, but they make for slightly schematic fiction. Nonetheless, Nussbaum’s vivid portraits of a wide variety of ILLC residents, some of whom are mentally ill as well as physically challenged, reveal the three-dimensional humanity of people the rest of society is all too willing to neglect and ignore.

Well-meaning, well-written and well-plotted, with qualified justice for some of the bad guys and hope for a few of the oppressed: A most appropriate winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Pub Date: May 28, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61620-263-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

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A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

A WEEK AT THE SHORE

A middle-aged woman returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing father, confronting many painful secrets from her past.

When Mallory Aldiss gets a call from a long-ago boyfriend telling her that her elderly father has been gallivanting around town with a gun in his hand, Mallory decides it’s time to return to the small Rhode Island town that she’s been avoiding for more than a decade. Mallory’s precocious 13-year-old daughter, Joy, is thrilled that she'll get to meet her grandfather at long last, and an aunt, too, and she'll finally see the place where her mother grew up. When they arrive in Bay Bluff, it’s barely a few hours before Mallory bumps into her old flame, Jack, the only man she’s ever really loved. Gone is the rebellious young person she remembers, and in his place stands a compassionate, accomplished adult. As they try to reconnect, Mallory realizes that the same obstacle that pushed them apart decades earlier is still standing in their way: Jack blames Mallory’s father for his mother’s death. No one knows exactly how Jack’s mother died, but Jack thinks a love affair between her and Mallory’s father had something to do with it. As Jack and Mallory chase down answers, Mallory also tries to repair her rocky relationships with her two sisters and determine why her father has always been so hard on her. Told entirely from Mallory’s perspective, the novel has a haunting, nostalgic quality. Despite the complex and overlapping layers to the history of Bay Bluff and its inhabitants, the book at times trudges too slowly through Mallory’s meanderings down Memory Lane. Even so, Delinsky sometimes manages to pick up the pace, and in those moments the beauty and nuance of this complicated family tale shine through. Readers who don’t mind skimming past details that do little to advance the plot may find that the juicier nuggets and realistically rendered human connections are worth the effort.

A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-11951-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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