A smart first novel that’s unafraid to find humor in atrocity.

A REPLACEMENT LIFE

An ambitious young writer compromises his integrity for the sake of his Russian forebears in Fishman’s darkly comic, world-wise debut.

Slava, the hero of this tale, toils as a relatively anonymous researcher at Century, an esteemed New Yorker–style magazine. Though he’s a gifted storyteller, he’s relegated to writing snarky retorts to flyover-country news briefs. His hubristic ambition to write bigger things is seized upon by his grandfather, who wants him to write a narrative for an application to receive reparations from Germany for death-camp survivors. The grandfather wasn’t actually in the camps, but no matter: Slava is masterful at giving (and withholding) just enough detail to be persuasive, and soon, much of the post-Soviet Jewish diaspora in Brooklyn is asking for similar assistance. Instead of making a dour morality tale, Fishman mines this setup for comedy, satirizing the magazine’s preaching about accuracy (which proves to be conditional) and portraying Slava as an easily led intellectual schlemiel. Bolstering his indecisive character, Fishman has Slava juggling two romantic interests, one a Century fact checker, the other a fellow Russian. How to make such an uncertain man worth spending time with? The novel is largely carried on Fishman’s sharp wit, ear for dialect and close character studies, which capture the sociological nuances of everyone from preening magazine editors to doting relatives. (He writes of Brooklyn's Soviet expat community: “These unlike people had been tossed together like salad by the cupidity of the Soviet government, and now, in America, they were forced to keep speaking Russian…and they did, because a Ukrainian’s hate of Russian was still warmer than his love of an American.” Slava’s romantic and professional reckonings in the closing pages are inevitable, but Fishman thoughtfully raises questions of what Holocaust-era suffering is deserving of recompense.

A smart first novel that’s unafraid to find humor in atrocity.

Pub Date: June 3, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-228787-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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