The great swatches of historical detail will enlighten readers who generally view history from a Western perspective, but...

THE LAST EMPRESS

In this sequel to her historical novel Empress Orchid (2004), Min tells the story of late-19th-century China’s crumbling empire, from the point of view of the country’s much-vilified final empress.

Two years after the death of Orchid’s husband, she and his “first wife,” Nuharoo, are sharing the upbringing of the new Emperor, Orchid’s seven-year-old son Tung Chih, and acting as ruling co-regents until he grows up. Orchid is overseeing a nation heavily in debt and slowly losing control of its provinces to western nations and Japan. Orchid is selflessly devoted to governing China. She does not allow herself a relationship with the one man she genuinely loves, focusing instead on preparing Tung Chih for his responsibilities with a single-mindedness that undermines the typical mother-son relationship. When Tung Chih, who hates his duties, dies in his 20s of a venereal disease, Orchid adopts her sister’s three-year-old son Guang-hsu and makes him emperor. Although Orchid loves Guang-hsu, her sense of political responsibility again overrides maternal feelings. The sensitive, sweet little boy grows into an indecisive, insecure ruler. Although recognizing the mistakes Guang-hsu and his advisors are making, Orchid often goes along in order to keep his sense of authority intact. By the time of the Boxer Rebellion, she has lost control over her ministers, even while she is being vilified in the Western press as the “Dragon Lady.” She wants reform and feels camaraderie with Robert Hart, who keeps China financially afloat for decades. But most of all, she wants to keep China unified, a goal that proves impossible.

The great swatches of historical detail will enlighten readers who generally view history from a Western perspective, but with Orchid so busy explaining herself, the human story of a woman who denies her instincts never quite emerges.

Pub Date: March 20, 2007

ISBN: 0-618-53146-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2006

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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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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