An engrossing tale of romantic and familial love set against the exciting radicalism of the ’40s and ’50s music, drug, and...

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THE WEIGHT OF A PEARL

A social novel tells the story of a nightclub singer and a troubled jazz musician dealing with the turmoil of the mid-20th century.

Chicago, 1935. Things improve for young Pearl Sayles and her family once her abusive father leaves the house. Pearl finally gets to attend school, where a kindly teacher helps her to learn to read and to take pride in her black features. Tragedy strikes when her father reappears and kidnaps her younger brother, Ronnie. Two years later, black jazz musician Demetrius “Doc” Calhoun and his friend Jimmy Turner sneak into Spain to join the International Brigades—despite Doc’s never considering himself a “joiner.” After Jimmy is killed, Doc learns the horrible cost of combat, though he still signs up to fight the Nazis a few years later during World War II. After the war, a reunited Pearl and Ronnie leave their painful history in Chicago to start over in New York, where the Harlem jazz scene is flourishing. Pearl finds a job singing in a nightclub, while Ronnie—a former sex worker—is exposed to the city’s blossoming gay culture. Pearl curiously notices the heroin habit of one of the other musicians: “He was never unpleasant, but on the nights he seemed especially happy onstage, she always smiled, glad that he had found something in that needle to chase away his blues.” When Ronnie falls back to his old ways of making money, he disappears, and Pearl turns to the drug to dull her pain. Soon she meets Doc, who has returned from the war with his own demons to find his place back in New York’s music scene. As heroin, the Red Scare, and the civil rights movement begin to reshape the world around them, Pearl, Doc, and Ronnie will have to pull together in order to survive the 20th century. Smith’s (Mello Yello, 2015, etc.) writing is accessible and deeply in tune with the emotional state of her characters. Her prose is matter-of-fact and laden with poignant details that unlock the darkness that haunts the story: “As she ran the soothing cold water over her ring finger, she jiggled her right bicuspid with her tongue. She had lost one of her back teeth a few months earlier, and now this one was so loose she was afraid it would fall out at supper. There was no money for a dentist, but she didn’t care. Not today.” Pearl is the center of the novel and its most realized character. The author has found a way to make the ups and downs of the mid-20th century feel like an inevitable outgrowth of Pearl’s personal life rather than historical events upon which she has been indelicately grafted. Doc’s storyline feels a bit more contrived, particularly the conversations he has during the war years, which frame the book’s notions of right and wrong in an unnecessarily overt way. Even so, Smith has woven a compelling, character-driven narrative in which readers should quickly become emotionally invested.

An engrossing tale of romantic and familial love set against the exciting radicalism of the ’40s and ’50s music, drug, and political cultures.

Pub Date: April 25, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9904996-7-1

Page Count: 405

Publisher: Sonata Books

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 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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