An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.

SONG OF LATVIA

A debut historical novel focuses on the plight of Latvians during World War II.

It is 1940 and some 8,000 people in Latvia are supposed to be singing as part of the annual Song Festival in Daugavpils. But the singing is delayed because President Kārlis Ulmanis has an important message: Soviet troops have invaded the country. When a woman named Mija Adamsons hears this news, she immediately thinks of her husband, Aleks. Aleks is a colonel in the Latvian army. If Latvia is to be engaged in military operations, her husband will surely be involved. Mija rushes to her home in the countryside where she later learns that Latvia is to become a Soviet republic. While Aleks resigns from the army rather than fight alongside the Reds, this is only the beginning of some difficult years for the couple. The Soviets quickly seize power; religion is banned; and many Latvian citizens are arrested. As conditions for people like Mija gradually worsen, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. If the advancing Germans can drive out the Russian invaders, perhaps things won’t be so bad. Yet once the Nazis arrive, it is hardly a cause for celebration. Byram’s story deftly illustrates the sheer terror in Latvia during World War II. How could anyone survive the horrors brought on by these two merciless forces? At one point, Mija feels like she is “imprisoned in an ice tomb.” Aleks, with his military background, comes to realize the sheer madness of the atrocities committed by the Germans (“He understood war, at least he thought he did, until now”). While such sentiments are hardly exaggerations given the circumstances, other details can be more obvious than instructive. Most of the story’s characters tend to express their exact feelings without much room for ambiguity. One man asserts rather unhelpfully that “it’s so difficult to find out anything these days.” Since Latvia is, of course, a contested land during World War II, could readers expect anything less? Nevertheless, even if some facets of the book lack complexity, the author skillfully paints the magnitude of the conflict in all its striking colors.

An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.           

Pub Date: Dec. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73412-200-8

Page Count: 338

Publisher: Russian Hill Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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