A brave, musical story rich with Southern history.


Melting the Blues

In McGhee’s debut novel, an African-American musician learns that there are many ways to get the blues.

Augustus Lee Rivers, a popular bluesman and all-around charmer, finds himself on the wrong side of his community at the beginning of this story, set in the Jim Crow–era American South. After he’s accused by Blind Eye Joe, a respected military veteran, of dishonestly defending the Duncans, a well-to-do white family, against a charge that they underpaid an acquaintance for a job, their conversation devolves into fisticuffs. Soon after, a white man named Peter Duncan offers to fund Augustus’ musical career—if he’ll sign a contract granting the Duncan family the right to his land after his death. Driven by dreams of stardom, Augustus agrees, only to later find out that the terms of the contract weren’t what he was told they were. One day, while fishing with his son, Charles, Augustus runs into Todd Duncan, Peter’s younger cousin, who angrily tells Augustus that his land has already become Duncan property; a scuffle follows, and Todd shoots Augustus in the arm. Fearing further retaliation, Augustus and his wife, Pearl, send Charles away while the rest of the family moves in with a local reverend and his wife. Furious, the Duncan brothers rally at the Rivers’ vacant home and burn it down. The novel’s fiery start declines into a quieter, but still tense, depiction of the Rivers’ circumstances as they get along as best they can in the reverend’s home. Augustus, bedridden, remains mute while his children and wife refashion their lives. Later, the Rivers discover that at least part of the land still belongs to them—and that the Duncans hadn’t been honest about it. Debut novelist McGhee writes in earthy, rhythmic prose, often anthropomorphizing features of the novel’s landscape: “Witnesses in nature, including the trees, the river, and the birds, had seen that Mo had arrived to the edge of the bridge first and therefore had the right of way.” She lays bare a world where racial tension manifests in highly calculated and sometimes murderous interactions. The book is moralistic without moralizing, and no single character holds the high ground for long. Its maturity is exemplified by its knowledge of American history, as the narrative points beyond overt racial violence to the more insidious harm of coerced or deceptive contracts.

A brave, musical story rich with Southern history.

Pub Date: March 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9971354-1-1

Page Count: 270

Publisher: Gold Fern Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 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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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.


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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