As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.

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HARLEM SHUFFLE

After winning back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his previous two books, Whitehead lets fly with a typically crafty change-up: a crime novel set in mid-20th-century Harlem.

The twin triumphs of The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) may have led Whitehead’s fans to believe he would lean even harder on social justice themes in his next novel. But by now, it should be clear that this most eclectic of contemporary masters never repeats himself, and his new novel is as audacious, ingenious, and spellbinding as any of his previous period pieces. Its unlikely and appealing protagonist is Ray Carney, who, when the story begins in 1959, is expecting a second child with his wife, Elizabeth, while selling used furniture and appliances on Harlem’s storied, ever bustling 125th Street. Ray’s difficult childhood as a hoodlum’s son forced to all but raise himself makes him an exemplar of the self-made man to everybody but his upper-middle-class in-laws, aghast that their daughter and grandchildren live in a small apartment within earshot of the subway tracks. Try as he might, however, Ray can’t quite wrest free of his criminal roots. To help make ends meet as he struggles to grow his business, Ray takes covert trips downtown to sell lost or stolen jewelry, some of it coming through the dubious means of Ray’s ne’er-do-well cousin, Freddie, who’s been getting Ray into hot messes since they were kids. Freddie’s now involved in a scheme to rob the Hotel Theresa, the fabled “Waldorf of Harlem," and he wants his cousin to fence whatever he and his unsavory, volatile cohorts take in. This caper, which goes wrong in several perilous ways, is only the first in a series of strenuous tests of character and resources Ray endures from the back end of the 1950s to the Harlem riots of 1964. Throughout, readers will be captivated by a Dickensian array of colorful, idiosyncratic characters, from itchy-fingered gangsters to working-class women with a low threshold for male folly. What’s even more impressive is Whitehead’s densely layered, intricately woven rendering of New York City in the Kennedy era, a time filled with both the bright promise of greater economic opportunity and looming despair due to the growing heroin plague. It's a city in which, as one character observes, “everybody’s kicking back or kicking up. Unless you’re on top.”

As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-385-54513-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

TO PARADISE

A triptych of stories set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 explore the fate of humanity, the essential power and sorrow of love, and the unique doom brought upon itself by the United States.

After the extraordinary reception of Yanagihara's Kirkus Prize–winning second novel, A Little Life (2015), her follow-up could not be more eagerly awaited. While it is nothing like either of her previous novels, it's also unlike anything else you've read (though Cloud Atlas, The House of Mirth, Martin and John, and Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy may all cross your mind at various points). More than 700 pages long, the book is composed of three sections, each a distinct narrative, each set in a counterfactual historical iteration of the place we call the United States. The narratives are connected by settings and themes: A house on Washington Square in Greenwich Village is central to each; Hawaii comes up often, most prominently in the second. The same names are used for (very different) characters in each story; almost all are gay and many are married. Even in the Edith Wharton–esque opening story, in which the scion of a wealthy family is caught between an arranged marriage and a reckless affair, both of his possible partners are men. Illness and disability are themes in each, most dramatically in the third, set in a brutally detailed post-pandemic totalitarian dystopia. Here is the single plot connection we could find: In the third part, a character remembers hearing a story with the plot of the first. She mourns the fact that she never did get to hear the end of it: "After all these years I found myself wondering what had happened....I knew it was foolish because they weren't even real people but I thought of them often. I wanted to know what had become of them." You will know just how she feels. But what does it mean that Yanagihara acknowledges this? That is just one of the conundrums sure to provoke years of discussion and theorizing. Another: Given the punch in the gut of utter despair one feels when all the most cherished elements of 19th- and 20th-century lives are unceremoniously swept off the stage when you turn the page to the 21st—why is the book not called To Hell?

Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-385-54793-2

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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