Even a memorable historical event can’t shake up a mostly bland story.

VERA

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 extinguishes all sense of normalcy for 15-year-old Vera Johnson, who must survive by sheer pluck and intelligence in the newly rattled landscape.

Olive-skinned, dark-haired Vera looks nothing like her blond sister, Pie. After all, Vera is the illegitimate daughter of San Francisco’s most successful madam, Rose, who made an arrangement with Morie Johnson, Pie’s Swedish mother, to raise Vera as her own in exchange for the physical comforts money can buy. Morie favors her biological daughter while not sparing the rod on Vera. Then Morie dies in the earthquake, leaving Vera to fend for herself and her sister. Having been an occasional visitor to Rose’s Pacific Heights mansion, Vera knows she will be able to find succor there. With Rose missing, though, Vera resorts to her internal drive to slowly craft a new life for herself, Pie, and a whole cast of colorful characters. Edgarian zooms the lens in on Vera, who narrates the book, and her immediate landscape, a choice that too often straightjackets the story. The novel shines in painting a vivid picture of early-20th-century San Francisco, including its rowdy politics, but it falls short of truly immersing the reader. Too often it reads like a daily chronicle of Vera’s doings, which gets claustrophobic. Rose’s mansion registers some damage but seems to escape the earthquake largely unscathed, a point that also strains credulity. Frustratingly, the plot takes a huge leap after the early post-earthquake days, barely skirting by Vera’s adulthood before we catch her again in old age.

Even a memorable historical event can’t shake up a mostly bland story.

Pub Date: March 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5752-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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