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RED POPPIES

A compelling portrait of an unfamiliar place on the cusp of modernity: a promising new writer.

Debut fiction describing the bloodstained last days of Tibetan chieftains before the Chinese communists took over their lands in 1949.

The tale is set in the Tibetan borderlands during the first half of the 20th century. Now part of Sichuan, the region was then ruled by powerful chieftains who lived like medieval barons. The son of one of them, Chieftain Maiqi, narrates. Commonly perceived to be an idiot because he doesn’t talk much and often looks vacant-eyed, the unnamed narrator is anything but stupid—indeed, the device of having people constantly call him “idiot” ultimately grows strained. Recalling his pampered childhood with slaves in attendance, a Buddhist lama and family historian on call, he details a brutal, colorful world. Each chieftain has an executioner, numerous concubines, and a standing army. There are no cars or electricity, the medicine is traditional and the customs antique. But the years bring dire changes. Chieftain Maiqi becomes extremely rich and powerful when a Chinese official orders him to grow opium; envious of his profits, fellow chieftains steal seeds and plant their own lands entirely with red poppies, but they starve when a bad winter ensues. Only Chieftain Maiqi has planted grain, heeding the advice of his now-teenaged son and saving his people. Respected more as he grows older, the narrator also warns his father and elder brother that they are stalked by assassins bent on avenging the death of kin executed by the chieftain. As the outside world intrudes and the Red army takes over, he ruefully recalls the historian who once told him “history means learning about today and tomorrow from yesterday.” The author, himself an ethnic Tibetan who lives in Sichuan, eschews conventional chronology and epic sweep in favor of an episodic, lyric, and low-key narrative

A compelling portrait of an unfamiliar place on the cusp of modernity: a promising new writer.

Pub Date: March 6, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-11964-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2002

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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