Still, Pataki deserves kudos for choosing her subject matter well—Sisi’s life is ideal fictional fodder.

THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS

A love match alters the course of the Habsburg dynasty in Pataki’s second novel (The Traitor's Wife, 2014).

In 1853, Elisabeth, known as “Sisi,” daughter of a Bavarian duke, accompanies her mother and older sister, Helene, to Vienna. The sisters’ redoubtable aunt, Archduchess Sophie, has arranged Helene’s betrothal to her son, Emperor Franz Joseph, who reigns over Austria, Germany, Hungary and most of central Europe. To Sophie’s alarm, Franz prefers the pretty, vivacious and athletic 15-year old Sisi to the shy, homely and studious Helene. After a gift-strewn engagement and lavish royal wedding, Sisi adjusts to the realities of wedded bliss among the monarchy: She has no privacy—every intimate detail’s observed and remarked upon by court spies—and a mother-in-law who's not about to brook any rivals for her son’s affection. When Sisi gives birth to two daughters, Sophie and Gisela, the archduchess complains of the lack of a male heir but happily appropriates the princesses, barring Sisi from any involvement in their upbringing. (The same will happen with Sisi’s ill-fated son, Prince Rudolf). Franz is preoccupied with affairs of state, dealing with rebellious upstarts like Hungary, Italy and Prussia, vassal nations eager to throw off the Habsburg yoke. Sisi is instrumental in healing the rift with Hungary, in part because this wildly popular empress has a special affection for the Hungarian people and landscape. On her first visit, she's captivated by the former rebel leader, dark, handsome Count Andrássy. However, young Sophie succumbs to a fever while in Budapest, feeding the archduchess’s propaganda campaign against Sisi’s maternal suitability. On her return to stultifying court life, Sisi is felled by depression but finally musters the will to stage a rebellion of her own. The plot doesn't stray far from the conventions of novels about royalty, exposing all the unsurprising human disappointments lurking behind the gilded façade.

Still, Pataki deserves kudos for choosing her subject matter well—Sisi’s life is ideal fictional fodder.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-9022-0

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Howard Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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