A stirring novel with a distinctive young narrator.

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The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee

Boerner follows the trials of a girl’s childhood in 1970s Arkansas in this debut novel.

When 10-year-old Gracie Lee Abbott walks up to a church pulpit, her pastor asks her if she’s there to be saved. “No sir,” she tells him, “I just came up to say hello and ask you to pray for my Daddy. He’s mean to Momma, he drinks too much beer, and I think he’s probably going to Hell.” It isn’t what the pastor is expecting to hear, but it’s what’s been on Gracie’s mind. Her father’s drinking has created a great deal of stress in her household, as have the ceaseless rains that threaten to drown her family’s cotton crop. Her admission to the pastor has some unintentional consequences—not the least of which is a full-immersion baptism for herself—that start the girl off on a year of confrontations and discoveries. The greatest is a mysterious gray house at the edge of her family’s property, where an unknown man recently shot himself. As Gracie attempts to learn French, meet Elvis, and wean herself off of dolls, her precociousness sets in motion a series of events that shake up her life and force her to grow up faster than she expected. Boerner’s prose is a wonderful medium for unspooling Gracie’s story, imbued with all the snark, wonder, and colorful details that characterize childhood. She expertly draws Gracie and her family, including her erratic, brutish father, her harried, no-nonsense mother, and her chirpy, imaginative younger sister, making them endearing and infuriating in equal measure. The book feels long at more than 300 pages, as the narrative meanders for much of its length, but Gracie’s voice is captivating enough to make readers trust in Boerner’s storytelling. The ending isn’t shocking but is affecting and earned. The author addresses real, high-stakes issues without slathering them in melodrama or saccharine sentimentality, and her book hearkens back to an older YA tradition of stories of plucky preteen girls, spooky houses, and inevitable tragedies that help mark the turning point from childhood to adolescence.

A stirring novel with a distinctive young narrator.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-940869-61-2

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2016

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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