Perhaps quality of expression is diminished in translation, but Gelasimov’s coming-of-age story grows old quickly.

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GODS OF THE STEPPE

During the final days of World War II, a 12-year-old boy dreams of becoming a soldier in this English translation of Russian author Gelasimov’s (The Lying Year, 2013, etc.) award-winning coming-of-age novel.

Petka is a precocious boy whose vivid imagination compensates for his reality. Shunned by many in Razgulyaevka for his illegitimacy, he’s a target for bullies and spends most days on the receiving end of his Granny Daria’s stick for his boisterous behavior. But to Petka, verbal and physical abuse is merely part of his normal day, and he shrugs it off while plotting boyish fun: caring for a wolf cub, lobbing cow patties at “enemy” targets, stowing away in a barrel to steal alcohol and befriending officers at a nearby POW camp. His one friend from the village is Valerka, a weak and sickly boy who deserts Petka whenever he’s allowed to join the bullies. While Petka engages in childish activities (which begin as mildly humorous but evolve into Dennis-the-Menace type antics that can best be described as idiotic), Japanese POW Miyanaga Hirotaro secretly writes a journal detailing his family history in hopes his sons in Nagasaki will someday read it. A man of honor descended from discredited samurais, Hirotaro’s often punished for alleged escape attempts when he leaves camp in search of herbs to minister to the wounded and ill. He tries to warn soldiers about the dangers of the nearby mine but is ridiculed for his efforts. On one of Hirotaro’s forays, he crosses paths with Petka, an encounter that’s fortuitous for the boy and painful for the prisoner. Hirotaro triggers a turning point in young Petka’s life: He begins to question actions, develop his own beliefs and take responsibility for the well-beings of others. Like his young protagonist, Gelasimov’s narrative launches with manic energy and quickly scatters in a thousand directions. Although fragmented prose may be representative of a young boy’s thought processes, the author fails to clearly connect events and characters and incorporate the elements into a credible, satisfactory conclusion.

Perhaps quality of expression is diminished in translation, but Gelasimov’s coming-of-age story grows old quickly.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61109-073-4

Page Count: 316

Publisher: AmazonCrossing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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