The mind-boggling story of 33 Chilean miners trapped 2,000 feet underground for 10 weeks.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist Tobar (The Barbarian Nurseries, 2011, etc.) spins a gripping narrative, taut to the point of explosion, of the 2010 story that made international headlines for weeks. He doesn’t rush a complex story with many strands: the men below and their cacophony of woes, the families above, the political maneuvering of the Chilean state, the tightfisted mine owners and the company of rescuers. The locale featured “harsh, waterless surroundings [that] serve as a laboratory for studying the possibility of life on other planets,” and the mine itself was a sweltering jackstraw of tunnels, some nearing 100 years in age and ripe for disaster, the rock groaning and hissing as the great tectonic plates collided deep below. Tobar’s depiction of the cave-in is cinematic: The ceiling and floor became “undulating waves of stone,” then the lights went out as colossal wedges of rock collapsed to seal the exits. The author fully invests readers in the men’s plight by portraying the crushing realization of the dire circumstances, individual acts of decency and pettiness, and moments of sublimity and madness. He also devotes sympathetic attention to the gathering tent city of relatives who refused to leave, certainly not until the bodies were recovered. When the first bore hole punched through, suddenly, “the devil is present in the mine, taking form in all the greed, the misunderstanding, the envy, and the betrayals between the men.” Ultimately, once the miners made it out alive, via a frightening escape vehicle, life was good—until all the other stuff that surfaced along with the miners began to bring many of them down.
An electrifying, empathetic work of journalism that makes a four-year-old story feel fresh.
Talented, versatile Donoghue (The Sealed Letter, 2008, etc.) relates a searing tale of survival and recovery, in the voice of a five-year-old boy.
Jack has never known a life beyond Room. His Ma gave birth to him on Rug; the stains are still there. At night, he has to stay in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to visit. Still, he and Ma have a comfortable routine, with daily activities like Phys Ed and Laundry. Jack knows how to read and do math, but has no idea the images he sees on the television represent a real world. We gradually learn that Ma (we never know her name) was abducted and imprisoned in a backyard shed when she was 19; her captor brings them food and other necessities, but he’s capricious. An ugly incident after Jack attracts Old Nick’s unwelcome attention renews Ma’s determination to liberate herself and her son; the book’s first half climaxes with a nail-biting escape. Donoghue brilliantly shows mother and son grappling with very different issues as they adjust to freedom. “In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary,” Jack thinks, unnerved by new things like showers, grass and window shades. He clings to the familiar objects rescued from Room (their abuser has been found), while Ma flinches at these physical reminders of her captivity. Desperate to return to normalcy, she has to grapple with a son who has never known normalcy and isn’t sure he likes it. In the story’s most heartbreaking moments, it seems that Ma may be unable to live with the choices she made to protect Jack. But his narration reveals that she’s nurtured a smart, perceptive and willful boy—odd, for sure, but resilient, and surely Ma can find that resilience in herself. A haunting final scene doesn’t promise quick cures, but shows Jack and Ma putting the past behind them.
Wrenching, as befits the grim subject matter, but also tender, touching and at times unexpectedly funny.
This plaintive sixth novel from the Booker-nominated Irish author (Mothers and Sons, 2008, etc.) is both akin to his earlier fiction and a somewhat surprising hybrid.
Tóibín’s treatment of the early adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a quiet girl from the town of Enniscorthy who accepts a kindly priest’s sponsorship to work and live in America, is characterized by a scrupulously precise domestic realism reminiscent of the sentimental bestsellers of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber and Betty Smith (in her beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But as Eilis both falters and matures abroad, something more interesting takes shape. Tóibín fashions a compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds, unsure almost until the novel’s final page where her obligations and affections truly reside. Several deft episodes and set pieces bring Eilis to convincing life: her timid acts of submission, while still living at home, to her extroverted, vibrant older sister Rose; the ordeal of third-class passenger status aboard ship (surely seasickness has never been presented more graphically); her second-class status among postwar Brooklyn’s roiling motley populace, and at the women’s boarding house where she’s virtually a non-person; and the exuberant liberation sparked by her romance with handsome plumber Tony Fiorello, whose colorful family contrasts brashly with Eilis’s own dour and scattered one. Tóibín is adept at suggestive understatement, best displayed in lucid portrayals of cultural interaction and conflict in a fledgling America still defining itself; and notably in a beautiful account of Eilis’s first sexual experience with Tony (whom she’ll soon wed), revealed as the act of a girl who knows she must fully become a woman in order to shoulder the burdens descending on her. And descend they do, as a grievous family loss reshapes Eilis’s future (literally) again and again.
A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of Tóibín’s ever-increasing skills and range.
Another season, another embargoed Big Book. This one is the hotly anticipated Mockingjay, the conclusion to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. We have had to wait along with the rest of America, as Scholastic, masters at whipping up anticipatory frenzy from their experience doling out Harry Potter books, decided to deny book reviewers our customary sneak-peek perk.
As if that doesn’t make a deliberate evaluation of Mockingjay difficult enough, Collins has requested, in an open letter to her fans, that speed-readers “avoid sharing any spoilers, so that the conclusion of Katniss’s story can unfold for each reader the way it was meant to unfold.”
What’s a book reviewer to do? A simple, “Great book—read it,” doesn’t seem quite enough, but delivering a substantive review without giving away particular story elements is something of a challenge. However, never let it be said that Kirkus Reviews ducks a challenge, so here goes...
As this third volume opens, Katniss has returned for a visit to the wreckage of District 12, her home, annihilated by the Capitol in retaliation for her having joined the rebellion and thwarted the Quarter Quell, the special extra-brutal anniversary Hunger Games designed to firmly grind the Districts under the Capitol’s heel.
Shortly after arriving back in District 13, once thought to have been obliterated and now openly the rebellion’s headquarters, Katniss learns, along with the rest of Panem via an official Capitol broadcast, that her former Gamesmate and would-be lover Peeta is alive and in government hands.
Partly to protect Peeta, partly for revenge—which part is larger, not even Katniss knows—Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay, physically donning the (armored) mantle to star in a series of “propos,” televised propaganda spots designed to rally the other Districts to the rebel cause.
Throughout the trilogy, Collins has asked readers to consider heavy questions. What level of violence is justified to achieve needed change? How much integrity can one compromise for a just end? To what extent does responsibility to others demand sacrifice of self? How much control does anyone have over the construction of self? Katniss is the ideal vehicle for this dialogue, her present-tense narration constantly putting her own motivations and even identity under scrutiny.
It’s not giving away anything to reveal that Katniss will be tested sorely, that allegiances will shift, that heart-thumping scenes of combat will yield to anguished reflection, that she and readers will find themselves always wondering just whom to trust, that she and readers will lose friends they love.
In the final analysis, this is exactly the book its fans have been hoping for. It will grab them and not let go, and if it leaves them with questions, well, then, it’s probably exactly the book Collins was hoping for, too.
This astonishing debut by a gifted 23-year-old American of Nigerian ancestry tracks an African child soldier’s descent into hell.
Resilient but terrified, Little Agu is a wide-eyed, preteen boy thrown among the demented and the depraved. At the start, in an unspecified West African country, he’s being dragged out of a shack in the bush and beaten by another child. There are trucks, and soldiers in rags. They offer Agu food and water and the chance to be a soldier. Agu accepts (as if he had a choice). He has lost his loving, close-knit family. His mother and sister were evacuated by the UN, and his schoolteacher father was shot before his eyes. Agu inherited their Christian and animist beliefs; the smartest kid in his one-room school, he loved to read the Bible. Now he must kill. It’s not so hard if you’re high on “gun juice.” Explains Agu: “They are all saying, stop worrying. Stop worrying. Soon it will be your own turn and then you will know what it is feeling like to be killing somebody. Then they are laughing at me and spitting on the ground near my feets.” Agu comes across a mother and daughter and butchers them with his knife. He wants to be a good soldier, yet he is fearful of being a “bad boy”—and there is no way to resolve the contradiction. Agu is always tired, always hungry, and his ordeal stretches into the night when he is used as a sex toy and sodomized. There are no pitched battles, just these ragtag rebels killing and plundering. Iweala writes with great restraint, mindful that the most important battle is for a boy’s soul: Redemption is possible, even if a return to innocence is not.
The outrageous conscription of children has its own heartbreaking lament.
A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism.
Just west of the Galápagos Islands, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was struck on November 20, 1820, by an 85-foot bull sperm whale. Yet the sinking was only the beginning of a fantastic voyage, narrated with brio and informed speculation by Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. For three months the 20 men who escaped the Essex drifted in three smaller open boats, enduring squalls, attacks by sharks and another whale, starvation, dehydration, madness, and despair, capped by eating the flesh of comrades who had begun to die off – and, in one instance, casting lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. When eight remaining castaways were retrieved off the coast of Chile, they had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific – farther than both William Bligh’s post-Bounty voyage and Ernest Shackleton’s trek to South Georgia Island nearly a century later. An account by first mate Owen Chase provided fodder for, most famously, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which took Chase’s description of the whale’s “decided, calculated mischief” as its central motif. Philbrick uses Chase’s narrative and an unpublished memoir by the ship’s cabin boy, as well as recent medical and psychological discoveries, to limn the terror of men faced with their most elemental fears. He also brings to life the Quaker-dominated society of Nantucket, including its ambivalence toward African-American sailors and its short existence as a microcosm of an emerging America: “relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny.”
A gripping chronicle of an epic voyage of hardship and survival that deserves to be as well known now as it once was. (16 pages b&w illustrations) (First serial rights to Vanity Fair; author tour)