Despite its length, a fast-paced narrative propelled by Capella’s masterful characterizations of his principals, Wallis and...

THE VARIOUS FLAVORS OF COFFEE

A coffee-taster in fin de siècle London experiments with love, coffee varietals and the commodities market in Capella’s robust latest (The Wedding Officer, 2007, etc.).

Robert Wallis is a dandified dilettante who pens verse, spouts aphorisms and aperçus and spends beyond his meager allowance on smoking jackets and other wardrobe items worthy of his idol (at least sartorially) Oscar Wilde. Coffee importer Samuel Pinker overhears Wallis disparaging a café’s brew, and hires his palate. Collaborating with Pinker’s daughter Emily, Wallis concocts a tasting kit of small vials of coffee flavors, enabling Pinker’s buyers to identify superior beans on their travels abroad. Although he visits prostitutes nightly, Wallis finds himself falling in love with Emily and supporting her campaign for women’s suffrage. When he proposes marriage, however, Pinker exiles him to Abyssinia to farm coffee under the tutelage of crusty Scotsman Hector Crannach. Wallis and Hector are accompanied by coffee broker Ibrahim Bey, and Bey’s two slaves, Fikre, a gorgeous African, and her eunuch guardian Mulu. Entranced, Wallis forgets Emily. Emily, meanwhile, mistakes politician Arthur Brewer for a kindred spirit. Wallis barters his last shilling for Fikre, and after a honeymoon of ecstatic lovemaking Wallis learns he’s been swindled: Ibrahim and Fikre have colluded to bankrupt him. Fikre escapes with Mulu, her true love. After Hector’s death (he’s mauled by a leopard) Wallis finds letters disclosing Hector’s affair with Emily. Disillusioned, Wallis returns to London, equipped with valuable life lessons from the tribesmen he’d tried and failed to exploit. He finds Emily married to Brewer, now an MP who’s shown his true male chauvinist colors. Back in Pinker’s employ, Wallis unwittingly abets Pinker’s conspiracy to manipulate the coffee market. Demonstrating that commodities futures and investor gullibility haven’t changed in a century or so, the ensuing “correction” benefits only Pinker and a few other major players. Finally proving his moral mettle, Wallis bows out, renouncing a fortune.

Despite its length, a fast-paced narrative propelled by Capella’s masterful characterizations of his principals, Wallis and Emily.

Pub Date: Sept. 2, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-553-80732-5

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2008

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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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