An often fun, if overpopulated, novel featuring bawdy melodrama, derring-do and political intrigue.

Tea and Tyranny: Still Shaggin' in Boston

Johnson’s (The Seeds of Love...and War: Still Shaggin’ for a Shillin’, 2009, etc.) most recent historical novel views the American Revolution through the eyes of the Founding Fathers—after tankards of ale and trysts with waterfront doxies.

One of the more impressive and confounding aspects of this novel is the size and scope of its cast. The characters include such real-life luminaries as Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere, as well as various fictional workingmen and -women of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including Big Bessie Clump and Amanda Griffith (of the Bunch of Grapes Tavern and the Snug Harbor Tavern, respectively); candle maker Zeke Teezle; and Amos, an African-American barman. Some 25 characters populate the narrative, most driven by the pursuit of liberty and following the axiom “that men are driven to drink if they are mad, sad, happy or horny.” According to the novel’s opening lines, “the doctrines of liberty and tyranny, superstition and enlightenment, wealth and poverty were clashing.” The overarching plot, framed by the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773), focuses on the political and economic, as well as the libidinous, tensions of the time. Adams, Hancock and Revere frequent houses of ill repute, away from the prying eyes of Tory spies, as they hatch a plan to oust their Colonial oppressors and the administration of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. One intriguing technique they employ is propaganda; for example, when Revere unveils his now-famous engraving of the Boston Massacre, Adams recommends adding “a few musket barrels sticking out of the second story windows” of the local Custom House; Hancock requests that a sign on that building be changed to read “Butcher’s Hall,” a move that another character says “guarantees a noose will be placed around the necks of those redcoats—and perhaps a customs officer for good measure.” However, Johnson’s female characters, and their overexposed décolletage, transform this story of the American Revolution into a Gothic tale reminiscent of a Hammer horror film, in which women with perky bosoms are paired off with bloodthirsty, lusty men. Ultimately, Johnson’s apparent effort to expose the differences between the classes largely consists of filles de joie conspiring to lure the men of Boston into the sack.

An often fun, if overpopulated, novel featuring bawdy melodrama, derring-do and political intrigue.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500387624

Page Count: 676

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

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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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