Despite occasionally heavy subject matter, it’s a lightweight intellectual exercise.

THE TRAVELS OF DANIEL ASCHER

Lévy-Bertherat’s debut novel is a story about storytelling—both historical and personal.

Hélène arrives in Paris in 1999 to study archaeology. She befriends a group of students, including Guillaume, a whimsical man who adores the work of H.R. Sanders, a beloved author of young-adult adventures. “H.R. Sanders” is actually the pen name of Daniel Roche, Hélène’s great-uncle, in whose Paris apartment she happens to be staying. The plot becomes more tangled when Hélène and Guillaume begin investigating Daniel’s past, including the time before he was adopted into Hélène’s family, when he was a young Jewish man in Paris during the Nazi occupation. In examining her great-uncle’s history, Hélène finds herself rereading his books; she’d never before seen the magic in them, but soon she finds herself devouring them with renewed interest, even as she approaches the kind of adventure found in their pages. The best moments in Lévy-Bertherat’s short novel involve people falling into stories, whether it’s Hélène almost missing her train stop due to an engrossing chapter or characters constructing personal histories for themselves in order to hide—or perhaps to heal—past traumas. But for a novel that focuses on the excitement of storytelling, there's little excitement here. Never does one get the sense that Hélène is in any sort of danger. She simply wanders from location to location, talking to people with ease, without the author ever developing a clear sense of the stakes. The writing is lovely, yes, but the novel suffers from not deciding what it wants to be: it neither excites enough to be great young-adult fiction nor does it dig deeply enough to be a compelling novel of ideas.

Despite occasionally heavy subject matter, it’s a lightweight intellectual exercise.

Pub Date: May 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59051-707-9

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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An elegant, pithy performance by a first-time novelist who couldn’t seem more familiar with his characters or territory.

RULES OF CIVILITY

Manhattan in the late 1930s is the setting for this saga of a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club are never the same after an auto accident.

Towles' buzzed-about first novel is an affectionate return to the post–Jazz Age years, and the literary style that grew out of it (though seasoned with expletives). Brooklyn girl Katey Kontent and her boardinghouse mate, Midwestern beauty Eve Ross, are expert flirts who become an instant, inseparable threesome with mysterious young banker Tinker Grey. With him, they hit all the hot nightspots and consume much alcohol. After a milk truck mauls his roadster with the women in it, permanently scarring Eve, the guilt-ridden Tinker devotes himself to her, though he and she both know he has stronger feelings for Katey. Strong-willed Katey works her way up the career ladder, from secretarial job on Wall Street to publisher’s assistant at Condé Nast, forging friendships with society types and not allowing social niceties to stand in her way. Eve and Tinker grow apart, and then Kate, belatedly seeing Tinker for what he is, sadly gives up on him. Named after George Washington's book of moral and social codes, this novel documents with breezy intelligence and impeccable reserve the machinations of wealth and power at an historical moment that in some ways seems not so different from the current one. Tinker, echoing Gatsby, is permanently adrift. The novel is a bit light on plot, relying perhaps too much on description. But the characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles avoids the period nostalgia and sentimentality to which a lesser writer might succumb.

An elegant, pithy performance by a first-time novelist who couldn’t seem more familiar with his characters or territory.

Pub Date: July 25, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-670-02269-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2011

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